France to launch Syria reconnaissance flights
PARIS - France will launch surveillance flights over Syria from Tuesday with a view to conducting airstrikes on Islamic State positions, President Francois Hollande said on Monday.
"I have asked the defence ministry that from tomorrow surveillance flights can be launched over Syria, allowing us to plan airstrikes against Daesh (the Islamic State group)," Hollande told a press conference in Paris.
"What we want is to know what is being prepared against us and what is being done against the Syrian population," he added.
He also confirmed that France would not send ground troops into the country, saying it would be "inconsequential and unrealistic."
He said it was unrealistic "because we would be the only ones" and also risked being "transformed into an occupation force".
"So we won't do it," he said. "It's for regional forces to take their responsibilities. France, however, will work to find political solutions."
He said that finding a political transition that sidelined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was "essential".
"The transition is an essential point. Nothing must be done that can consolidate or maintain Bashar al-Assad," he said.
Hollande's comments come at a time of growing concern in the West over reports that Russia is toughening its military stance in Syria.
Moscow has been a bulwark of military and diplomatic support to the Assad regime, and is promoting an expanded coalition against IS that includes countries in the region as well as the regular Syrian army.
The United States government expressed concern on Saturday over reports of "an imminent enhanced Russian buildup" in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry "made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria," the State Department said in a statement.
Concerns of being sidelined by Russia have combined with the growing surge of interest in the fate of refugees from the war, pushing France to take a more active role in Syria.
Speaking to AFP on Saturday, a French official said any French strikes would not involve joining the US-led coalition.
"Our line hasn't changed, and there's no question of joining the coalition in Syria," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
France currently only participates in missions against IS in Iraq following that country's request for international help against the jihadists.
Hollande said the French military had so far carried out 200 strikes in Iraq.
It has played a minimal role in the recent diplomatic push to find a political solution to the country's civil war, which has included the unprecedented meeting in Doha on August 3 between the top US, Russian and Saudi diplomats.
The Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers were later received separately in Moscow, as were representatives of various more moderate Syrian opposition groups.
Britain is also thought to be considering military strikes in Syria, with Prime Minister David Cameron trying to organise a new parliamentary vote on the issue in the coming weeks.
British lawmakers rejected such action two years ago, in a decision that embarrassed Cameron and drew criticism from the United States.