France says it plans to launch airstrikes against "Islamic State" in Syria in the near future. Syria's civil war and the growing presence of jihadist militants there has forced millions of refugees to flee.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday his country would send fighter jets to strike targets in Syria "in the coming weeks."
So far France has only carried out surveillance flights, but that will change "as soon as we have well-identified targets, and we can carry out the strikes that we need to," Drian told France-Inter radio.
Le Drian told Parliament this week that the jihadist group "Islamic State" (IS) had made "very significant progress" in Syria, especially in the northern Aleppo region. But opposition lawmakers expressed concerns that the US-led air campaign wasn't working to curb the group's presence.
France's air force has been bombing Iraq with the US-led coalition since last year, but had thus far steered clear of Syria over concerns raids could strengthen the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. French President Francois Hollande explained the change in policy, saying a further action was needed to end the violence that's displaced scores of Syrians.
First strike by Australia
The US, Canada, Turkey and Gulf states are already involved in carrying out strikes on IS in Syria. Australia joined them on Wednesday, carrying out its first airstrike in the country. Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said a Royal Australian fighter jet destroyed an IS armored personnel carrier with a guided missile.
"Two of our Hornets identified the personnel carrier, which was hidden in a Daesh compound," the minister told reporters using the Arab acronym for IS.
Assad vows to stay
In an interview with Russian media on Tuesday, Syrian President Assad said the international coalition's airstrikes had failed to stop the spread of IS militants. He also blamed Europe for the Syrian refugee crisis, saying it was a direct result of the West's support of extremists in Syria.
"Stop, if you are worried about them (refugees), stop supporting terrorists," he said. The Syrian government considers all armed groups fighting to topple Assad to be terrorists.
Syria's conflict began with an uprising against Assad's regime in 2011, and since then has spiraled into a multi-front civil war involving government forces, opposition militias, IS and other groups. About 250,000 people have been killed, and some 4 million have been forced to flee the country, creating a refugee crisis in Syria's neighbors and in Europe.
Hundreds of mainly Syrian refugees have traveled through Turkey in a bid to enter the European Union
The US and its allies believe that eliminating IS is only possible with Assad's departure. Russia, on the other hand, says there can be no end to the conflict without cooperation with Damascus. Moscow, a close Assad ally, has been sending battle tanks and other weaponry to Syria in recent days.
Assad said he would only quit power if the Syrian people wanted him to, and not under pressure from the West.
"As for the president, he comes to power with the people's assent through elections, and if he leaves, he leaves if the people demand it, not because of the judgment of the United States, the UN Security Council, the Geneva Conference or the Geneva Communique."
Meanwhile, Germany's Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has called for a new diplomatic initiative to bring Syria's warring parties together "at one table to work on a solution together."
Speaking to German broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday, Von der Leyen also said she opposed the deployment of German ground troops in Syria, but stressed that Germany’s military was already "heavily committed to the fight against Islamic State."
nm/jil (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)