France urges UN to back Syria plan


France will propose making United Nations envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria obligatory by invoking the UN's Chapter 7 provision, foreign minister Laurent Fabius said today, describing the conflict there as a "civil war".

Mr Fabius said he hoped Russia would agree to using Chapter 7, a measure which can authorise the use of force, and he said that a no-fly zone was another option under discussion.

"We propose making the implementation of the Annan plan compulsory," he told a news conference. "We need to pass to the next speed at the Security Council and place the Annan plan under Chapter 7 - that is to say make it compulsory under pain of very heavy sanctions."

France would propose toughening sanctions on Syria at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers, he said.

He said the international community would prepare a list of second-ranking military officials who would be pursued by international justice, alongside President Bashar al-Assad and his immediate entourage.

"They must understand that the only future is in resisting oppression. The time for taking a decision has arrived. They have to jump ship," Mr Fabius said.

About 2,000 Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland have crossed into Turkey in the past 48 hours, a significant increase in the number of Syrian refugees now taking shelter in Turkey, the foreign ministry said today.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said the latest wave of arrivals had brought the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to about 29,500, the highest taking shelter in Turkey at one time since the start of the uprising some 15 months ago.

Among the 2,000 new refugees were 43 wounded people who have been hospitalised in Turkey, Mr Unal said.Turkey has given shelter to more than 50,000 Syrians since March 2011 but thousands have since returned to their homes in Syria.

Earlier, the US said it was concerned that Russia may be sending Syria attack helicopters and views Russian claims that its arms transfers to Syria are unrelated to the conflict there as "patently untrue," US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said.

The comments came as the Pentagon found itself on the defensive for doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, given concerns in Congress about the firm's role in arming the Syrian regime.

Washington says it is concerned that Russia may be supplying Syria with attack helicopters.

Ms Clinton said this would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically".

She said today Russia would put at risk what it sees as its vital interests in the Middle East if it did not move forward more constructively on Syria.

"Russia says it wants peace and stability restored. It says it has no particular love lost for Assad and it also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep. They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now," Ms Clinton told reporters at a news conference.

British foreign secretary William Hague said he would hold urgent talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tomorrow on the sidelines of the conference in Kabul to ask him to put pressure on Mr Assad to implement the Annan plan.

Russia has proposed a conference on Syria bringing together global and regional powers including Syria's ally Iran. Ms Clinton also said government forces were massing around Aleppo and that this could be "a red line for the Turks in terms of their strategic and national interests".

She did not specify if she was referring to the city of Aleppo, Syria's northerly commercial hub, or the province.

The 15-month-old conflict in Syria has grown into a full-scale civil war, the UN peacekeeping chief said yesterday.

However Syria's foreign ministry said today the UN's comments about civil war was an unrealistic description of the conflict.

"Talk of civil war in Syria is not consistent with reality... What is happening in Syria is a war against armed groups that choose terrorism," Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement as saying.

Many hundreds of people, including civilians, rebels and members of president Bashar al-Assad's army and security forces have been killed since a ceasefire deal brokered two months ago was meant to halt the bloodshed.

"We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry - everything they are shipping is unrelated to their (the Syrian government's) actions internally," Ms Clinton said, addressing a forum in Washington. "That's patently untrue."

Ms Clinton did not offer any details about the source of her information about Russia's possible shipment of attack helicopters to Syria, saying only: "We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria."

She said such a sale "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Ms Clinton was concerned about helicopters now en route to Syria and not about possible past sales of Russian-origin attack helicopters to Syria. She said she could not elaborate or speculate on the source of Ms Clinton's information.

Russia and China are Dr Assad's principal defenders on the diplomatic front and, as permanent members of the UN Security Council with the power to veto resolutions, have stymied efforts by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of Assad.

The United Nations says Dr Assad's forces have killed more than 10,000 people since the uprising against his family's four-decade rule of Syria broke out in March 2011.

Pentagon spokesman Capt John Kirby said he had no knowledge of a new helicopter shipment but acknowledged th the Assad regime was turning to helicopters to stage attacks. "We know that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships against their own people," Capt Kirby said.

Asked whether Russia's resupply of military equipment to Syria was enabling the Syrian armed forces to continue the killings, he said: "To the degree that the Syrian armed forces use that resupply to kill their own people, then yes."

The Syrian government's use of Russian-made arms has thrown a spotlight on the Pentagon's purchase of Russian helicopters for the Afghan military, which the US is building up so that it can take over security as American troops withdraw.

This week, US Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to defense secretary Leon Panetta branding Russian export firm Rosoboronexport "an enabler of mass murder in Syria".

"I remain deeply troubled that the (Pentagon) would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities," Mr Cornyn wrote. "Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of US sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar (Pentagon) contract."

A Cornyn aide said the senator put a hold on the nomination of Heidi Shyu to serve as assistant secretary of the army for acquisition, logistics, and technology, as a way to pressure the Pentagon over the matter.

But the Pentagon said dealing with Rosoboronexport was the only legal way to supply the helicopters to Afghanistan and attempted to differentiate between the two conflicts.

"We understand the concerns. We're not ignoring them," said Pentagon spokesman George Little. "But I would make the point that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Mi-17 is about giving them what they need and what they can use effectively to take on their own fights inside their own country."

Capt Kirby dismissed concerns that US reliance on ground supply routes through Russia hampered its ability to speak out over arms shipments to Syria. But at the same time, he repeatedly stressed the need to blame Dr Assad for the atrocities, as opposed to overly focusing on weapons suppliers.

"The focus really needs to be more on what the Assad regime is doing to its own people than the cabinets and the closets to which they turn to pull stuff out," he said. "It's really about what they're doing with what they've got in their hands."