French were 'hours' from military strikes on Syria before phone call from Obama

Fighter jets were preparing for scheduled take off when President Hollande took 'stunning' call from US telling him to hold fire

French President Francois Hollande called off military strikes against Syria on 31 August following a phone call from the US President only hours before fighter jets were set to take off, a French weekly magazine has revealed.

The report in the Nouvel Observateur shows how close the West came to launching a war on Syria over the Syrian regime’s presumed use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, before Washington backed down. President Obama announced in a televised speech on 31 August, after informing a “stunned” Mr Hollande, that he would seek a Congressional vote, effectively lifting the military threat.

Rafale aircraft were readied that Saturday for take-off and official statements prepared in anticipation of the strikes, according to the Nouvel Observateur. “Everything made us think that D-Day had arrived,” a French official is quoted as saying. The magazine said that “this incredible misunderstanding lasted until the end of the afternoon,” at 6.15pm, when President Obama telephoned Mr Hollande, who was expecting to confirm the military orders just after the phone call. The strikes had been intended to start at 3am later that night, targeting missile batteries and command centres of the 4th Armoured Division in charge of chemical weapons.

But instead of confirming that the US and French military would intervene jointly, President Obama changed his mind following a conversation in the White House Rose garden with his chief of staff Denis McDonough.

The French Defence Ministry had no comment on the Nouvel Observateur report today. But it was clear that the French military establishment was stung by the US leader’s behaviour. The former head of the French military academy, General Vincent Desportes, told Le Monde on 2 September that “President Obama’s U-turn reflects a great contempt by the United States for France.”