The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, seemed calm and was surrounded by only light security when he gave an interview to a French journalist in Damascus earlier this week.
“By showing himself without any obvious signs of protection, the Syrian President wanted to demonstrate that he is not hiding in a bunker,” wrote the interviewer, George Malbrunot of Le Figaro today.
The interview – the first given by Mr Assad to a Western journalist since the gas attack on a rebel-held area of eastern Damascus on 21 August – took place on Monday in a house on a pine-clad hill in Damascus. “Security around the house was minimal. I was not searched,” Malbrunot wrote. “Bashar al-Assad came to greet me in the entry porch. We went into a large office, decorated with paintings. Mr Assad remained calm throughout… He showed no obvious signs of anxiety but he seemed very troubled by his stand-off with Barack Obama.”
In extracts of the interview released later that day, President Assad warned France of “negative repercussions on its interests” if it joined the US in an air attack on Syria. He also warned that the Middle East was a “powder-barrel” which could “explode” into a “regional war” if the air-raids went ahead.
The interview, published over a full page in Le Figaro today, produced an angry reaction from President François Hollande. He accused President Assad of telling “lies” and of threatening “the people of France”.
“Reading the interview only increased my determination,” Mr Hollande said.
“The most serious threat would be to do nothing, to let him continue to use chemical weapons.”
Members of the French National Assembly will debate the proposed air attack on Syria this afternoon but will not be allowed to vote. President Hollande is, however, thought to be ready to back down and put the issue to a parliamentary vote in the next few days – possibly after the Congressional vote in Washington next week.
Mr Hollande has the power to order short military action without parliamentary approval. However, Mr Hollande now accepts that the “No” vote in the House of Commons last week and President Obama’s decision to consult Congress have left him in an impossible position. There is no question of France acting alone if Congress rejects air strikes.
Opposition politicians point out that this means, in effect, that the US Congress will decide whether French forces should go into action but that the French parliament will not.
The Elysée Palace was said to be looking for a way out of this political and constitutional maze. Le Monde reported the government was likely to table a confidence motion in policy on Syria in the next few days.
Two in three French voters oppose military action by France, according to opinion polls. Most of Mr Hollande’s Socialists are reluctantly prepared to go along. His Green allies are against. The centre-right opposition is divided. The far right and hard left are virulently opposed.