PARIS/BEIRUT France will propose giving the United Nations the power to enforce Kofi Annan's Syrian peace plan, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday, adding that a no-fly zone was an option under consideration to stem what was now a civil war.
His comments were the toughest yet from a major power in response to the relentless violence in Syria, where many hundreds of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed since an April 12 ceasefire was supposed open up a chance for political talks to resolve the crisis.
Fabius said he hoped Russia, which has shielded President Bashar al-Assad from international action over his bloody crackdown on a 15-month-old uprising, would agree to the United Nations invoking 'Chapter 7', which can authorize use of force.
The peace plan brokered by Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, has so far failed to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where more than 10,000 people have been killed since early last year.
"We need to move up a gear at the Security Council and place the Annan plan under Chapter 7," Fabius said. "That is to say, make it compulsory under pain of very heavy sanctions."
His proposal appeared certain to be opposed by Russia, which says Western and Arab powers misused a U.N. Security Council resolution last year to justify armed intervention in Libya.
Fabius said one of the options under consideration at the Council was a no-fly zone, after increasing reports of Syrian forces using helicopter gunships to fire on rebel strongholds, and U.S. concern that Russia was supplying Damascus with more helicopters.
France will propose toughening sanctions on Syria at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers, Fabius said.
World powers would prepare a list of second-tier military officials who would be pursued by international justice, alongside 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," Fabius said.
The Syrian government says it is still committed to Annan's plan, under which it says it has the right to prevent attacks on military or state targets. It says it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists, not a popular uprising backed by armed rebels.
Syrian television said government forces had restored calm and security in Haffeh after they "cleansed it of armed terrorist groups" in a week-long offensive on the region, waged with helicopter gunships and tanks.
Free Syrian Army rebels said they had withdrawn from Haffeh on Tuesday night, but that they feared a massacre of civilians after troops bombarded surrounding villages, then looted and burned them.
Rebel spokesman Selim al-Omar said "heavy shelling by field artillery" had forced out the last 200 rebels defending Haffeh.
"There are several thousand civilians left without anyone to protect them from the Alawite militias surrounding the town," he said by phone from Latakia province, which includes Haffeh.
U.N. observers who arrived at the town on Tuesday said they had turned back after their vehicles were fired on and they were threatened by crowds throwing stones and metal rods.
Rebels who had crossed into Turkey said at least 50 wounded people had been smuggled across from Haffeh in the past few days but that many more were trapped by fierce fighting, and being shot at if they tried to get out.
A Free Syrian Army fighter recovering at a hospital in the Turkish city of Antakya described the assault.
"First, helicopters attack the villages, later the tanks attack, and then at the end soldiers enter the houses, loot them and set fire to them," said Mohammad, a 25-year-old fighter with a bullet wound to the shoulder received, he said, as he tried to rescue the wounded.
Turkey said about 2,000 Syrians had crossed its southern border in the space of 48 hours. It said there were now about 29,500 Syrian refugees in Turkey, the highest number since the start of the uprising.
On Tuesday U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous became the first senior U.N. official to say Syria was now in a civil war, a declaration could have legal implications for Assad and rebel fighters in terms of war crimes and compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
But Syria dismissed the comment.
"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," the state news agency SANA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement as saying.
Washington says it is concerned that Russia may be supplying Syria with attack helicopters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically".
She added on Wednesday 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," Clinton told reporters at a news conference.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would hold urgent talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday on the sidelines of the conference in Kabul to ask him to put pressure on Assad to implement the Annan plan.
Russia has proposed a conference on Syria bringing together global and regional powers including Syria's ally Iran.
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".
Clinton did not specify if she was referring to the city of Aleppo, Syria's northerly commercial hub, or the province.
Activists say the rural west and north of Aleppo province is effectively in rebel hands, but that troops are storming some villages in the far north, bordering Turkey.
Heavy shelling was reported by residents in the central city of Homs. They said locals had fled 10 districts of the city after Assad's troops swept through the area.
In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, opposition activists said three people had been killed on Wednesday in a tank offensive to uproot rebels who had inflicted heavy losses on government forces in the past few days.
Damascus sees the conflict as a foreign-backed conspiracy against its legitimate rule. Corroborating accounts of what is happening inside Syria is difficult because the government heavily restricts foreign media access.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 10,000 people since the start of the uprising. Syria says Islamist militants have killed 2,600 soldiers and police.
(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Antakya, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Sanjeev Miglani in Kabul; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Heavens)