BEIRUT

Middle East

Qatar calls for no-fly zone in Syria

Firefighters stand among debris after bombs exploded in a school building in Damascus September 25, 2012 in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA

BEIRUT: Qatar has called on world powers to prepare a "Plan B" for Syria within weeks and set up a no-fly zone to provide a safe haven inside the country in case international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi fails to make progress in the crisis.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said he believed that Arab and European countries would be ready to take part, despite their public reluctance to commit the forces needed for such a mission.

Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, strongly supports the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels, while Shiite Iran backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Western powers, meanwhile, have made clear that they are opposed to direct intervention and the United Nations Security Council will not sanction action against the wishes of Russia and China.

Speaking hours before U.S. President Barack Obama was due to address a United Nations summit, Sheikh Hamad also said he hoped that Washington would focus more on Syria after the presidential election in six weeks' time.

"I believe that within weeks we should have a Plan B," Sheikh Hamad told CNN in an interview. "You need to make safe-haven areas first of all for the people. That will require a no-fly zone.

"If the Syrians want to break that, that's another subject. That also needs somebody to have the teeth to tell them: 'Don't do that, because that will not be allowed'."

President Assad has resorted to air strikes by jets and helicopter gunships to hit rebel fighters in territory outside government control. The air strikes drove tens of thousands of refugees into Turkey and Jordan, prompting Turkey to call for the establishment of safe havens inside Syria.

Western powers have resisted the idea, but Sheikh Hamad suggested that countries may be prepared to bypass the U.N. Security Council. "A lot of Arab countries will participate and ... also European countries will participate," he said, "and ... I hope that after the election the American government looks at this matter in a different way."

Activists say that 27,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which began as peaceful demonstrations for reform 18 months ago but has spiralled into an armed insurgency with sectarian overtones that could drag in regional powers.

Peace envoy Brahimi, who took over as international mediator at the start of September, said on Monday that the situation in Syria was "extremely bad and getting worse", and posed a threat to the Middle East and to global security.

He said he had a "few ideas" but not a full plan on how to end the conflict, though he hoped for an opening to break the violent stalemate "in the not too distant future".

Sheikh Hamad denied that Qatar had been arming the rebels, saying that his country provided logistic and humanitarian help. He said that a Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation would be catastrophic.

"That's a very dangerous scenario," he said. "My fear, if there is a Sunni-Shi'ite war or escalation ... (is that) nobody will win in this. A fire will burn everybody. We should avoid that by all means."

 

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