PARIS — The French military is ready to commit forces to an operation in Syria if President Francois Hollande decides to do so, a defense official said Thursday — but the president himself remains non-committal.
Hollande, after meeting the visiting chief of the Syrian opposition, offered his political and humanitarian support for opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad but stopped short of announcing a military intervention.
The United States, France and Britain are believed to be preparing possible military action against Assad's regime after an apparent poison gas attack in Syria on Aug. 21. U.N. experts are currently in Syria investigating the attack.
French Defense Ministry spokesman Pierre Bayle told reporters Thursday that "the French armed forces have put themselves at the ready to respond to the instructions of the president if he takes the decision to commit French forces" to an international intervention in Syria's civil war.
Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch any military action that lasts less than four months.
Hollande, who has spoken out strongly against Assad's government, on Thursday stressed the importance of a political solution and making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative.
Hollande said he told Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba that "France will offer all its help. Its political help, its support, as it we have for months. But also its humanitarian, material aid."
"Everything must be done to reach a political solution, but that will not happen unless the coalition is capable of appearing as an alternative, with necessary force, notably its army," Hollande said. "We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, which the chemical massacre is just one illustration of."
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A French official said the aim of any French action would be to shock Assad's government into understanding that they cannot use chemical weapons. The official, who spoke on condition because he was discussing sensitive military issues, said the goal was not to launch a war.
Al-Jarba, speaking alongside Hollande, said the chemical attack "will not go unpunished."
French military officials would not comment on reports Thursday that a French frigate has left southern France toward Syria to take part in an eventual military operation.
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.