As President Obama weighs options for sanctioning Syria over alleged chemical weapons use, France, which defiantly opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq a decade ago, has emerged as Washington's staunchest supporter for punitive air strikes.
After the British Parliament on Thursday rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to authorize military action against Syria, French President Francois Hollande said Friday that the British decision wouldn't weaken his government's commitment to sanction the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said in an interview with the French daily Le Monde. "There are few countries with the capacities to inflict sanctions with the appropriate means ... France is among those. It is ready."
Hollande brushed off the 285-272 vote in Britain's House of Commons against the measure authorizing military intervention in Syria as its right.
"Every country is sovereign in deciding whether or not to participate in an operation," Hollande told the newspaper.
France, along with Germany, was one of the most vocal opponents of military action in Iraq in pursuit of U.S. claims that President Saddam Hussein had hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction. France's then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin drew raucous applause at the United Nations in his Feb. 14, 2003, speech against the impending U.S.-led invasion that occurred weeks later.
Russia, China and Iran have issued warnings in the past few days that any strike against the Assad regime for the suspected Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons runs the risk of igniting a wider war in the Middle East.
Opposition to striking Syria, at least before a U.N. inspection team reports its findings from the site of suspected poison gas use, also intensified at a meeting of foreign ministers at the world body headquarters.
A group of U.N. investigators wrapped up its field work on Friday and was to leave Syria early Saturday to report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The delegation that visited the Damascus suburbs where chemical attacks are suspected was charged only with determining whether the prohibited substances were used, not with identifying whether it was Assad's forces or insurgent groups that used them.
"If you do ask the United Nations to investigate something, it would be helpful, I have thought, to at least get the results of that investigation," before acting to punish the suspected violators, said John Ashe, U.N. ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda and president-elect of next month's U.N. General Assembly.
Argentina, which held the rotating U.N. Security Council presidency this month, also warned against premature action against Assad's government. A statement from the Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires said the U.N. inspection team would soon have "conclusive results, transparent, objective and impartial," and that Latin American states believe any military operation carried out before that information is at hand "would not do anything but aggravate the situation.”
The British parliamentary vote Thursday effectively handcuffs any direct participation by Britain in air strikes against Syrian military targets. Other leading NATO states, including Germany, also have said they would not take part in military operations without U.N. Security Council approval.
Efforts earlier this week to get Security Council authorization for punishment, or even censure, of Assad failed because of opposition by Russia, Syria's most powerful ally and one of five permanent members wielding veto power within the sole U.N. body empowered to impose sanctions.