France Was So Close to a Syria Strike Before the U.S. Changed its Mind

French fighter jets were ready for takeoff when president Francois Hollande got a surprising phone call from Barack Obama calling off a planned military strike in the country. 

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French fighter jets were ready for takeoff when president Francois Hollande got a surprising phone call from Barack Obama delaying a planned military strike in the country, according to a report in French weekly Nouvel Observateur. That call came just before President Obama announced to the U.S. on Saturday, August 31 that the country wouldn't be taking military action against Syria right away. 

According to the report, Hollande was hours away from authorizing the French contributions to the planned strikes, apparently scheduled for later Saturday night at 3 a.m. Believing that Obama's call would confirm the plan, Hollande set up a meeting with his war team for directly after the scheduled call. France was, in some ways, the most enthusiastic about taking action against Syria. And it sounds like France was prepared: the administration had speeches prepared to justify the action to the French people. It had a plan of action: fly jets, armed with cruise missiles, over international waters in the Mediterranean in order to avoid prompting Syria to retaliate against any of its neighbors. Because of the limitations of the French weapons, the country's targets were limited to Western Syria, including Damascus. The U.S. was going to strike the rest of the targets. On the phone with Obama, the French leader reportedly tried to get Obama to stick to the plan, but the U.S. had decided to go ahead with seeking congressional approval before a military strike. France had also prepared a declassified summary of intelligence on Syria, much as the U.S. had done, to sway skeptics on the plan. 

Obama's decision to back off of a military strike on Syria was, by most reports, a last-minute one. As the U.N. inspectors cleared out of the country on Friday night, the president was still ready to go ahead and strike without congressional or international approval. After a week of deliberation, Obama overruled all of his national security advisors, made the call to France, and told the American people that Congress would approve any plan for military action in Syria. 

Of course, we're in a different place now one month later. Any plan to strike Syria is on hold while the U.N. takes baby steps with an enforceable resolution to rid the country of its chemical weapons stockpile. After tough negotiations this week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed an agreement that outlines a plan to destroy Syria's stockpile. But while that resolution is enforceable, it contains no specific provisions in the event that Syria doesn't comply. If that happens, the council will have to reconvene and negotiate all over again

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.