PARIS (AP) — France said openly Thursday for the first time that its military is preparing for a possible operation in Syria — but President Francois Hollande stopped short of announcing armed intervention over a suspected chemical weapons attack.
Expectations have been mounting that the United States, France and Britain are preparing military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime after an apparent poison gas attack in Syria on Aug. 21. U.N. experts are currently in Syria investigating what happened.
Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months. He appears to have a stronger hand than his U.S. and British counterparts, who are facing some resistance at home to a Syrian intervention amid questions over the attack.
While Hollande has spoken firmly against Assad's regime, the French military has been quiet about its plans.
On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "The Armed Forces have been put in position to respond" if the president commits French forces to an international intervention in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France and its allies are preparing an "indispensable" response and that it should be "thought-out, proportionate and firm."
Hollande on Thursday stressed the importance of a political solution and making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative, notably with increased firepower.
"We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration," Hollande said after meeting Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.
France has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. France's military was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and led an intervention against extremists in Mali earlier this year.
French military officials confirmed that the frigate Chevalier Paul, which specializes in anti-missile and air-air capabilities, as well as the hulking transport ship Dixmude, had set off Thursday from the Mediterranean port of Toulon as part of normal training and operational preparations — but denied reports that the move was linked to a Syrian intervention.
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.