Will Macron do in Syria what Obama wouldn’t?
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Like former US president Barack Obama, France’s Emmanuel Macron has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line” that would prompt a military response. Obama never followed through on his threat, but France has now vowed action.
With the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma on April 7, the Syrian government has “reached a point of no return,” French Ambassador to the UN François Delattre told the United Nations Security Council on Friday. The world must provide a “robust, united and steadfast response,” he added.
And he promised his nation would act. “France will shoulder its responsibility to end an intolerable threat to our collective security,” he said.
Syria has denied a chemical weapons attack in Douma, but even if they are proven to have been used, will Macron have the support to strike?
At least 42 people died in the April 7 attack. In its aftermath, photos circulated on social media showing families that had died together and children with foam in their mouths. Survivors said they struggled to breathe. But the Syrian government denies the use of chemical weapons.
Much of the world community, though, maintains that the indications all point to a chemical attack. The World Health Organization said Wednesday that about 500 people had been treated for “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a television interview on Thursday that he had “proof” of a chemical attack. And US officials have said that blood and urine samples taken from the victims tested positive for both chlorine gas, which has been widely used in the seven-year civil war, and a nerve agent.
A team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is headed to Douma and will begin investigating on Saturday.
Russia, which has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, has its own interpretation of events. On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Britain of staging the attack. Britain responded by calling the charge “a blatant lie.”
During Thursday’s interview, Macron warned that the Syrian government had crossed a line that could prompt airstrikes. The statement is not a new one: Macron has repeatedly said that if chemical weapons were used in Syria, France would retaliate.
In a phone call Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Macron promised “coordination” with Russia to “de-escalate the situation,” the Kremlin said.
Exactly what that coordination would entail was not specified, but it could relate to Russian soldiers on the ground in Syria. Russia has told the US in the past that it would not allow its troops to be put at risk by military action, and the two nations maintain contact to avoid direct confrontation.
But tough talk doesn’t guarantee action. In August, 2012 Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line for his administration, but he didn’t follow through on his threat when they were used in Ghouta a year later.
Macron faces resistance at home. Both right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen and far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon have said they oppose military action in Syria.
But Macron might have international support for action. After a phone call with US President Donald Trump on Sunday, the two pledged a “strong, joint response,” according to a White House statement.
On Friday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Trump had still not made a decision about military action, but made it clear that the option remained on the table.
Despite his tough words, Macron may not want to strike in Syria without Washington’s support, particularly in light of his scheduled trip to the US on April 24.
“Especially with Macron's state visit to Washington coming up, I don’t think that Macron would do anything that’s not coordinated with the White House,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Nicholas Dungan told The Washington Post. “If necessary, France would be willing to act alone, but it wouldn’t act in isolation. If they opted for military action, the French would expect the support of the other major NATO allies.”
Moscow warned Friday against any strikes and promised to retaliate. In his call with Macron, Putin warned against "ill-considered and dangerous actions ... that would have consequences beyond conjecture."