| UNITED NATIONS/ANKARA
UNITED NATIONS/ANKARA The opposition Syrian National Council has failed to overcome internal divisions and is not up to the challenge of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, a prominent former member of the group has said.
Assad, in a rare television interview, said he would need more time to defeat the rebels and dismissed talk of a Western-imposed buffer zone on Syrian territory as unrealistic.
Basma Kodmani, who resigned from the Syrian National Council this week, said the group was not doing enough to back the increasingly violent 17-month-old revolt against the government in Damascus and needed to be replaced by a new political authority.
"My sense was that the SNC was not up to facing the increasing challenges on the ground and was not up to the performance I would have liked it to be," she told Reuters in a telephone interview from Paris on Wednesday.
Kodmani, one of the few women in the SNC, headed its foreign affairs bureau. The SNC was formed in Istanbul last year to guide a democratic transition if Assad fell but has been accused by some of being dominated by Islamists.
"The groups inside the council did not all behave as one in promoting one national project," Kodmani said. "Some have given too much attention to their own partisan agendas, some to their personal agendas sometimes. That resulted in a major weakness in connecting closely with the groups on the ground and providing the needed support in all forms."
In Syria, opposition activists reported air and ground bombardment by government forces in eastern neighborhoods of Damascus, which prompted thousands to flee the area.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 100 people were killed on Wednesday, 29 of them government soldiers. So far the war has claimed more than 18,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Turkey, already host to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting, urged the United Nations to protect displaced Syrians inside their country.
Ankara fears a mass influx such as the flight of half a million Iraqi Kurds into Turkey after the 1991 Gulf War, and has floated the idea of a "safe zone" under foreign protection within Syria for civilians fleeing intensifying violence.
"We expect the United Nations to engage on the topic of protecting refugees inside Syria and if possible sheltering them in camps there," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
France supports Turkey's call for a safe zone in Syria, and pressure for action increased after the U.N. refugee agency said that Syria's exodus was accelerating. Up to 200,000 people could settle in Turkey if the conflict worsens, the UNHCR said.
Davutoglu said refugee flows in the hundreds of thousands constituted a dangerous international problem.
But the United States and its allies have shown little enthusiasm for providing the military and aerial support to police a no-fly zone which Turkey's proposal would require.
Assad, in his first television interview since a bomb attack killed four of his top security officials on July 18, brushed off the idea of international intervention.
"I believe that talk about a buffer zone is not practical, even for those countries which are playing a hostile role (against Syria)," he said, according to an interview with Syria's Addounia TV broadcast on Wednesday.
He also ridiculed Turkey, which once cultivated good relations with Assad but turned against him over his violent response to the uprising.
"Will we go backwards because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials?" Assad said.
"Turkey bears direct responsibility for the blood being shed in Syria," the Syrian leader said.
Turkey already hosts more than 80,000 refugees and the UNHCR said up to 5,000 people a day had arrived there in the last two weeks. The refugee flow to Jordan has also doubled, it said.
Davutoglu spoke ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting of foreign ministers expected to focus on Ankara's proposal.
"We are studying the issue of buffer zones," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will chair Thursday's meeting in New York, acknowledging the issue was "complicated".
A French diplomatic source said establishing a buffer zone would be difficult because a U.N. resolution would be needed to set up a no-fly zone - impossible given Russian and Chinese reluctance to move against Assad.
Iran said it would form a team with other non-aligned countries to explore solutions to the crisis in Syria.
Tehran says the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, which it is currently hosting, proves U.S. efforts to isolate it over its nuclear program and support for Assad have failed.
"At a time when many other international organizations have gotten involved in the Syria issue, it's not right that the Non-Aligned Movement take a back seat," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Reyhanli, Turkey, Catherine Bremer in Paris, Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Michael Roddy)