ST. PETERSBURG (Reuters) - France will await conclusions by U.N. inspectors investigating last month's chemical weapon attack in Syria before deciding on any action, President Francois Hollande said on Friday.
That could mean French involvement in any military strikes against Bashar al-Assad not being decided until close to the end of the month at the earliest. U.N. diplomats have said the results of the U.N. analysis may not be ready for weeks.
"We shall await the report of the inspectors just as we will await (U.S.) Congress," he told a news conference after a summit of G20 nations in Russia's St. Petersburg, referring to an expected U.S. vote on military strikes.
Domestic critics say Hollande risks diplomatically isolating France by pushing it into a military intervention alongside the United States but without a U.N. mandate. Russia and China are seen vetoing such action in the U.N. Security Council.
The French leader acknowledged that G20 leaders at the summit disagreed on who was responsible for an August 21 gas attacks on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus which Washington says killed more than 1,400 people.
He said a clear U.N. mandate was preferable but said that he would aim to bring together a coalition of states in favor of intervention if the U.N. Security Council could not agree.
"We will do everything we can so that France only strikes military targets to avoid civilian casualties," he said of any action chosen to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, adding that the objective would be to push a political solution to the 2-1/2 year civil war rather than directly oust Assad.
He said U.S. President Barack Obama had told him a U.S. Congress vote on any intervention was due around the middle of next week.
"If we did not respond ... it would mean that a dictator who uses chemical weapons and massacres almost 1,500 people and many children would have no punishment for his actions meaning that in Syria or elsewhere dictators could act with impunity," Hollande said.
Hollande, who has struggled to get backing from European partners on a possible strike, said he was hopeful he could at least get their political support. "I am trying to make sure that the Europeans agree, at least on the political position.
(Writing by John Irish; editing by Mark John)