NEW YORK: A French plan to channel aid to rebel-held “liberated zones” in Syria falls well short of the foreign-protected safe haven the opposition says it needs, offering little hope of relief to the worsening plight of civilians fleeing the chaos.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France and Turkey had identified areas in the north and south that are out of President Bashar Assad’s control, creating a chance for local communities to govern themselves without feeling they had to flee to neighboring countries.
“Maybe in these liberated zones Syrians who want to flee the regime will find refuge, which in turn makes it less necessary to cross the border whether in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq,” Fabius said after a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York Thursday.
But the French plan is a far cry from the foreign-protected “safe zone” advocated by Turkey, which is struggling to cope with a growing exodus of Syrians onto its territory and is increasingly frustrated by the lack of international consensus.
The Turkish proposal sank like a stone. The Council meeting ended without even a non-binding statement of support, much less a binding resolution.
A frustrated Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the council that he’d come to New York in hopes the members would take “long overdue steps” to alleviate the suffering and establish camps inside Syria for those forced to flee their homes.
“Apparently, I was wrong about my expectations,” Davutoglu said.
Like so many other proposals to end the fighting, the Turkish appeal was all but dead on arrival, given the risks of creating such a zone and the hostility of veto-wielding Russia and China to any proposal that is not accepted by Assad.
Ankara will continue to push for foreign agreement on setting up a safe zone inside Syria at the U.N. General Assembly next month and will try in the coming weeks to pressure Russia and Iran, who strongly oppose any such action, Turkish government sources said.
Assad’s opponents will only be able to form a credible transitional authority inside Syria if such a foreign-protected safe haven is established, Syrian opposition figure Basma Kodmani told Reuters.
“Such a provisional government needs to be based inside Syria in the liberated areas ... That requires a safe zone where it can be based,” said Kodmani, who quit the Syrian National Council this week saying it was out of touch with forces on the ground.
Civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have suffered frequent deadly air strikes from Assad’s forces and in some areas there are doubts about the control the rebels really have, raising questions about the French strategy.
Fighters close to the Turkish border frequently cross into Turkey to sleep, effectively putting the territory back into Assad’s hands at night.
Credible protection for “liberated” areas would require no-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft, but there is no chance of securing a U.N. Security Council mandate for such action, given opposition from Russia and China.
The northern town of Azaz, 3 kilometers from the Turkish border, is notionally a “liberated zone” but at least half the population has fled and Assad’s forces still shell the town from a nearby military airport on an almost nightly basis.
Abu Musaab al-Surie, commander of a rebel unit of around 20 men, said a no-fly zone would mean they could take the airport.
It was not clear how Fabius’ promise to allocate much of its future 5 million euros ($6.25 million) aid for Syria to these areas would protect civilians and deter them from fleeing.
Western powers have said they will not supply weapons to lightly armed Syrian rebels, who have few answers to attacks by Assad’s combat planes and helicopter gunships.
After the Council meeting to discuss the humanitarian crisis ravaging Syria after 17 months of conflict, they said military action to secure safe zones was still an option.
But they have shown little appetite for sending warplanes to Syria or mount the kind of NATO bombing that helped Libyan rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi last year.
Turkey’s government feels increasingly uncomfortable being seen to support rebels with no clear road map in Syria and has repeatedly made clear it will not undertake any kind of intervention on its own.
“If it does something like this on its own it amounts to occupying the territory of that country. This must be done in a coalition and the fundamental desire is for it to be done with a U.N. decision,” said retired Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu, now an analyst at a think-tank in Ankara.
But U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres questioned the idea of buffer zones. “Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas,” he said.
Up to 300,000 Syrians have fled the country, while many more are displaced inside it, and conditions for those trying to escape the fighting are worsening, humanitarian agencies say.
Fabius said more help must be given to rebel-held areas and that Paris and Ankara were working to identify individuals in these zones who could be part of a future Syrian authority.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier this week that the United States had started programs for administrators in territories outside Assad’s control.
“In the Syria of the future, these people will play an important role because they have emerged out of the conflict and they have the trust of the population,” Fabius said. – With AP