France calls for humanitarian zone in Syria

French initiative the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention.

French Defense, Foreign M. Longuet, Juppe_311 (photo credit: Reuters/Phillip Wojazer)
French Defense, Foreign M. Longuet, Juppe_311
(photo credit: Reuters/Phillip Wojazer)
AMMAN/PARIS - France has called for a "secured zone to protect civilians" in Syria, the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention on the ground in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also described Syria's exiled opposition National Council as "the legitimate partner with which we want to work", the biggest international endorsement yet for the nascent opposition body.
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A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to engage with the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, but stressed the need for them to maintain a peaceful, non-sectarian approach.
Asked at a news conference on Wednesday after meeting the SNC president if a humanitarian corridor was an option for Syria, Juppe ruled out military intervention to create a "buffer zone" in northern Syria but suggested a "secured zone" may be feasible to protect civilians and ferry in humanitarian aid.
"If it is possible to have a humanitarian dimension for a secured zone to protect civilians, that then is a question which has to be studied by the European Union on the one side and the Arab League on the other side," Juppe said.
Further details of the proposal were not immediately available. Until now, Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Syria but have shown no appetite for intervention on the ground in the country, which sits on the fault lines of the ethnic and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
"The French have tried to position themselves in a position of leadership, first with Libya and now here," said Hayat Alvi, a lecturer in National Security studies, at the US Naval War College. "Military intervention in Syria is a very different prospect of that in Libya, but we could well see an increase in covert action."
The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership over the conflict, one of the most important signs of Assad's isolation, but has shown little appetite for international intervention.
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Britain said it welcomed the opportunity to discuss the French proposal and repeated its call for Syria to end human rights violations.    Syrian defectors say they are hopeful that Turkish troops will create a safe haven within Syria. Defectors say they could use such a zone as a staging ground to mount a rebellion.
Turkey is reluctant to take military action across the border but Turkish officials say they could set up a sanctuary on Syrian territory if huge numbers of refugees head for the frontier or if massacres take place in Syrian cities.
Ground forces commander Hayri Kivrikoglu inspected troops near the border on Tuesday, Turkish state television reported.
Syrian deserters and civilians in refugee camps and villages in Turkey close to the frontier say the Syrian army has reinforced its positions in border areas.
"There are tanks in the valleys, hidden among the trees, and they've dug trenches," Syrian refugee Hamid Fayzo told Reuters in the Turkish village of Guvecci, overlooking the border.
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the uprising, triggered by Arab revolts which have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Assad, 46, seems prepared to fight it out, playing on fears of a sectarian war if Syria's complex ethno-sectarian mosaic shatters.
But many experts say Assad, who can depend mainly on the loyalty of two elite Alawite units, cannot maintain current military operations without cracks emerging in the armed forces.