France‘s defence minister has ruled out “confrontation” and “escalation” following its joint military operation with the US and UK that attacked “targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities” in Syria.
The strikes early on Saturday came in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in the former rebel stronghold of Douma last weekend.
Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly told reporters the military action targeted the “main research centre” for Syria’s chemical weapons programme and “two important production sites”.
France’s aim was to deter Syria’s government from using chemical weapons, she said, adding that her government did not want to exacerbate the conflict.
“We are not looking for a confrontation and refuse any logic of escalation,” said Parly.
“That is why, with our allies, we ensured that the Russians were notified ahead of time.”
Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies and has military bases in Syria. It has denounced the US-led military action.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, called the US-led response “targeted and proportionate”.
“It was limited to specific objectives: The destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical capabilities to stop it from committing new chemical massacres,” said Drian.
He added that France will now return to taking political initiatives to end the crisis in Syria.
Earlier on Saturday, President Emmanuel Macron also said France and its partners “will renew their efforts at the UN to allow the establishment of an international mechanism to establish responsibility, prevent impunity and prevent any recurrence by the Syrian regime”.
Meanwhile, Theresa May, UK prime minister, said her government resorted to military action only after its efforts at deterring the Syrian government from using chemical weapons were “repeatedly thwarted” at the UN by Russia.
“Just this week, the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into this latest attack,” May told a press conference.
“So we have no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own will not be any more effective in the future than it has been in the past,” she said, arguing that it was “both legal and right” to carry out the strikes in Syria.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” she said.
“It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”
May went on to dismiss as “grotesque and absurd” a claim by Russia, which intervened in the war in 2015 to back Assad, that the Douma attack was staged by Britain.
She referred specifically to last month’s nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury that she has blamed on Russia. Moscow has denied any involvement.
“We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere,” May said.
She said almost a century of global acceptance about not using chemical weapons had been eroded in Douma and Salisbury.