French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who first made the call for a “secured zone to protect civilians” after talks with the head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) on Wednesday, stated on Thursday that this did not mean a direct military intervention, although he said the zone could be protected by armed “observers.” France, which was behind a UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for NATO intervention in Libya, seeks support for its Syria proposal from the European Union, the US and the Arab League, leaving -- at least for the time being -- Turkey out of the picture again.
Turkey was not invited to an international conference on Libya arranged hastily by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in March. An international coalition led by France and Britain began air strikes on Libyan targets immediately after the Paris meeting. NATO took over the command of operation shortly after it began.
Juppe said on Thursday that the secured zone in Syria could be carved out either with the approval of the Syrian government or organized by international observers. “There are two possible ways: That the international community, Arab League and the United Nations can get the regime to allow these humanitarian corridors, but if that isn't the case we'd have to look at other solutions ... with international observers,” Juppe told France Inter radio.
Juppe ruled out military intervention, but when asked whether humanitarian convoys would need military protection he said: “Of course ... by international observers, but there is no question of a military intervention in Syria,” he said. “For us, there is no possible humanitarian aid without an international mandate,” Juppe said.
Juppe said on Wednesday that he would propose ways to help civilians in Syria to the European Union next week. On Thursday, he announced that he had spoken to his international partners at the United Nations and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and would speak to the Arab League later on Thursday.
Consensus on no intervention changing?
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. But the French proposal may change the diplomatic consensus.
On Thursday, the EU said protecting civilians “is an increasingly urgent and important aspect” of responding to the bloodshed there, but stopped short of endorsing Juppe's call for EU-backed humanitarian corridors to allow humanitarian groups a way in. Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokeswoman, said the bloc stands ready to engage with representatives of the Syrian opposition “who adhere to nonviolence and democratic values.”
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.
Britain said it welcomed the opportunity to discuss the French proposal, while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle rejected it, saying military options are opposed by regional countries. Westerwelle, according to Anatolia news agency, also said in an interview with German broadcasting company Südwestrundfunk that cooperation with Turkey is essential in protecting civilians in Syria.
Meanwhile, the US navy said the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush arrived this week in the Mediterranean. It made no reference to the unrest in Syria and said the ship would continue through the Mediterranean en route home to the United States.
A Western diplomat in the region said about the US aircraft carrier: "It is probably routine movement but it is going to put psychological pressure on the regime, and the Americans do not mind that."
The changing international scene may also force Turkey to reconsider options. Turkish leaders have dramatically stepped up criticism of Assad's crackdown in recent weeks but there has been no suggestion of military action despite rampant speculation in Turkish and international media that it could create a buffer zone inside Syria.
Turkish President Abdullah Gül, on an official visit to Britain, said this week that change is inevitable in Syria, but said this should come from within Syria, not through external intervention. Earlier, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke of the fate of defeated dictators from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to Muammar Gaddafi, and bluntly told Assad to quit.
Thousands of Syrian soldiers have deserted the regular army since it started cracking down on the eight-month protest movement. Some have formed rebel armed units loosely linked to an umbrella “Free Syrian Army” led by officers in Turkey.
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.
Citing Israeli security officials, Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Thursday that they believe Turkey is moving toward a military intervention in Syria, in order to create a secure buffer zone for opposition activists. Accordingly, Turkey is expected to set up secure buffer zones on its border with Syria that would allow armed opposition groups to organize against the Syrian regime from bases protected by the Turkish army, according to Haaretz.
Despite reluctance to take military action across the border, 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 Gen. Hayri Kıvrıkoğlu 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 Güveççi, 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.
On Wednesday, Gül warned of Shiite-Sunni divide that could affect the entire Middle East. “Defining this democratic struggle along sectarian, religious and ethnic lines would drag the whole region into turmoil and bloodshed,” he warned, urging the Syrian opposition to promise that it will avoid revenge and discriminatory policies after the collapse of the Baathist regime.