France to help Syria 'safe zones'
France plans to channel aid to rebel-held parts of Syria so that these "liberated zones" can administer themselves and staunch an outflow of refugees, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said.
He said France and Turkey had identified areas in the north and south that had escaped Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's control, creating a chance for local communities to govern themselves without feeling they had to flee to neighbouring 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," Mr Fabius said after a UN Security Council meeting in New York last night.
However, civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have suffered frequent deadly air strikes from Dr Assad's forces.
It was not clear how Fabius's promise to allocate much of its future €5 million aid for Syria to these areas would protect civilians and deter them from fleeing.
"What we can see is that the opposition has taken strong positions in liberated zones in the north and south," Mr Fabius said.
"Those resisting who have taken control of certain zones and municipalities need to administer these areas."
Credible protection for "liberated" areas would require no-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft, but there is no chance of securing a UN security council mandate for such action, given opposition from veto-wielding members Russia and China.
Western powers have also said they will not supply weapons to lightly-armed Syrian rebels, who have few answers to attacks by Dr Assad's combat planes and helicopter gunships.
After the council meeting to discuss the humanitarian crisis ravaging Syria after 17 months of conflict, Western powers said military action to secure safe zones was still an option.
But they have shown little appetite for sending warplanes to Syria to protect safe havens or mount the kind of Nato bombing that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Up to 300,000 Syrians have fled the country, while many more are displaced inside, humanitarian agencies say.
Turkey, which has called for buffer zones to be created, now hosts more than 80,000 Syrian refugees and the UN refugee agency says the eventual figure could reach 200,000.
The United Nations questioned the idea of buffer zones.
"Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Mr Fabius said more help must be given to rebel-held areas.
"We need to help them financially, administratively, sanitarily and in terms of equipment. We are helping them directly as is Turkey," the foreign minister said.
Paris and Ankara were working to identify individuals in these zones who could be part of a future Syrian authority.
"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," Mr Fabius said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier this week that the United States had started programmes for administrators in territories outside Dr Assad's control.
"We have been working with them on issues of civil administration, human rights training, the kinds of things that they might need from the international community as they begin to rebuild their towns," she said.
Ms Nuland said the training involved programmes outside Syria for those able to leave the country and "pretty extensive contacts" with those unable to leave.
"They are asking for help in how to budget, they are asking for help in how to keep utilities running, how to ensure that the institutions of the state that provide services to the population come back up and running," she said.
The United Nations says nearly 20,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Dr Assad began in March, 2011.
Syrian opposition groups put the death toll far higher.