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France waits on US vote over Syria strikes

Tuesday - 9/3/2013, 7:50pm  ET

FILE -- This file photo, taken on Friday Dec. 2, 2005, released by Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd., shows an Arrow missile being launched at an undisclosed location in Israel. Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, an apparent display of military prowess as the Obama administration seeks congressional support for strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A Sparrow missile was launched successfully at 9:15 a.m. and followed its planned trajectory. The Arrow missile defense system successful detected and tracked the target, the ministry said. (AP Photo/Israel Aircraft Industries, File) ** NO SALES **

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- France will not carry out punitive missile strikes against Syria on its own and is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Congress on possible military action against Bashar Assad's regime, the French president said Tuesday.

As the Obama administration worked to build support ahead of the Congress vote, the U.S. and Israel conducted a joint missile test in the eastern Mediterranean in an apparent signal of military readiness. In the operation, a missile was fired from the sea toward the Israeli coast to test the tracking by the country's missile defense system.

The U.S. and France accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people. President Barack Obama and his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, are pushing for a military response to punish Assad for his alleged use of poison gas against civilians -- though U.S. officials say any action will be limited in scope, not aimed at helping to remove Assad.

Obama appeared on the verge of launching missile strikes before abruptly announcing on Saturday that he would first seek congressional approval. Congress returns from its summer recess next week.

On Tuesday, the White House won backing for military action from two powerful Republicans -- House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor.

In Paris, Hollande said that the U.S. vote "will have consequences on the coalition that we will have to create." He did not specify whether that meant a military coalition.

"A large coalition must therefore be created on the international scale, with the United States -- which will soon take its decision -- (and) with Europe ... and Arab countries," Hollande said.

If Congress votes no, France "will take up its responsibilities by supporting the democratic opposition (in Syria) in such a way that a response is provided," he added.

France's government on Monday released an extract of intelligence gathered by two leading French intelligence agencies alleging that Assad's regime was behind the attack and at least two other, smaller-scale ones earlier this year.

Hollande added Tuesday that France had indications the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, a claim U.S. officials have also made.

The French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. France's constitution doesn't require such a vote for military intervention unless its lasts longer than four months, though some French lawmakers have urged Hollande to call one anyway.

The U.S. and France say the alleged chemical attack violates international conventions. Russia, which with Iran has been a staunch backer of Assad throughout the conflict, has brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that any "punitive" action could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed in that nation's civil war.

"I take note of the argument for action to prevent a future use of chemical weapons. At the same time, we must consider the impact of any punitive measure on efforts to prevent further bloodshed and facilitate the political resolution of the conflict," Ban said.

With the Middle East anxious as it awaits a decision about strikes, Israel and the U.S. tested the Jewish state's Arrow 3 missile-defense system over the Mediterranean.

A medium-range decoy missile, known as a Sparrow, was fired in the Mediterranean, and the system successfully detected and tracked it, the Israeli Defense Ministry said. The decoy was not carrying a warhead and the system did not intercept it, the ministry said.

In a statement Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. provided technical assistance and support to the Israeli test.

He said the test was "long planned to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system's ability to detect, track, and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel."

He said the test had nothing to do with the U.S. consideration of military action in Syria.

Nonetheless, it served as a reminder to Syria and its patron, Iran, that Israel is pressing forward with development of a "multilayered" missile-defense system. Both Syria and Iran, and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, possess vast arsenals of rockets and missiles.

The Arrow 3, expected to be operational around 2016, would be the first such "multilayer" missile-defense system, designed to intercept long-range missiles such the Iranian Shahab before they re-enter the atmosphere.

Last year, Israel also successfully tested a system designed to intercept missiles with ranges of up to 300 kilometers (180 miles) which is expected to be operational by early 2015.

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