Elysee says France, U.S. need to establish responsibility for Syria gas attack


By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France said on Monday it would work closely with the United States on a response to this weekend’s suspected chemical attack in Syria and that both countries agreed responsibility for the strike must be established.

Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump agreed during a telephone call on Sunday that chemical agents were used in the deadly attack on April 7, the Elysee palace said in a statement.

The assault on Douma will be a test of Macron’s credibility after he issued repeated warnings that “France will strike” if it is proven chemical attacks have been used with lethal effect in Syria.

Macron and Trump “exchanged information and analysis confirming the use of chemical weapons,” the French presidency said.

The French readout of the conversation stopped short of apportioning blame on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, which one Syrian aid agency said killed at least 60 people.

“All responsibilities in this area must be clearly established,” the Elysee statement said.

It added that Macron and Trump had instructed their teams to deepen exchanges in the coming days and co-ordinate their efforts at the U.N. Security Council on Monday. The two will discuss the subject again within 48 hours, it said.

The White House readout was more robust. It said the two leaders had agreed “the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses” and pledged to “coordinate a strong, joint response.”

The subject of chemical weapons’ use in Syria has been a thorny issue for Macron. Standing alongside Vladimir Putin last May, he said he would not let differences over Syria strain relations that had soured under his predecessor Francois Hollande.

At the same time, he warned that he would not accept the use of chemical weapons, which he said was a “red line” that would draw French action, even unilateral.

Since then, thousands more Syrians have since been killed or displaced, suspected chemical weapons attacks have resumed and the surge in violence risks spilling over borders.

While Macron has repeated his threat of French strikes after persistent reports of chlorine attacks, his foreign minister and aides have been more nuanced.

They have underlined that a military response would hinge on French intelligence proving both the use of chemical agents and fatalities, and said a riposte would most likely be in coordination with the United States.

Analysts said Macron could no longer say his red line had not been crossed.

“Whatever the identity of the authorizing officer of this gassing, and whatever the chemical agent used … it is no longer possible to say that the French red line has not been crossed,” Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Paris-based Strategic Research Foundation, said on Twitter.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Richard Lough and Alison Williams)

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