PARIS (Reuters) - France said Wednesday it wanted the U.N. Security Council to set up humanitarian corridors in Syria to alleviate civilian suffering and that it was negotiating with Russia on a new U.N. resolution on the conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country, which has already joined China in vetoing two Security Council resolutions on Syria, could not support using the U.N. body to “help legitimize” regime change in Damascus.
Paris suggested in November creating a safe passage for relief organizations, with Syrian approval or an international mandate, to get food and medicine to civilians caught up in an 11-month-old struggle to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
“The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed, to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres, should be discussed at the Security Council,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Info radio.
Lavrov was non-committal when asked whether Russia support such a plan. “It’s impossible to answer such questions without having language (details) in your hands,” he told reporters.
On February 4, Russia and China blocked a draft Security Council resolution supporting an Arab League call for Assad step aside as part of a transition to democracy, provoking strong criticism from the Western and Arab states pushing for the measure.
Since then, violence has intensified, with Syrian forces attacking opposition strongholds. Wednesday troops backed by armored personnel carriers stormed a Damascus suburb.
Under the French plan, humanitarian corridors would link Syrian population centers to the frontiers of Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, to the Mediterranean coast or to an airport.
Juppe has said the zone could be protected by armed “observers,” but has ruled out direct military intervention.
A diplomatic source said a U.N. resolution would be needed to create the corridors, but who would protect it, be it peacekeepers or unarmed observers, was still to be assessed. Financing of such an operation would depend on its form.
Juppe plans to discuss the plan with Lavrov in Vienna on Thursday.
Juppe and his ambassador to Syria met a dozen aid and human rights groups Tuesday to discuss what they needed to provide support to besieged Syrians.
“There is a humanitarian crisis developing as a result of the political repression and we are seeing a serious problem with access to food, potable water and medicine as well as using the denial of healthcare to repress,” said Antoine Bernard, executive director at the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, which attended the meeting with Juppe.
After the talks Paris announced a 1 million euro ($1.31 million) fund for aid agencies involved with Syria and said he would propose a similar one at an international level when a “Friends of Syria” contact group meets in Tunisia next week.
Bernard said the French proposal followed Sunday’s Arab League resolution which called for Arab and international plans for humanitarian action. Among these, he said, was a proposal from Jordan for a refugee camp on its border with Syria.
Juppe said Paris was renegotiating the resolution at the Security Council to try to persuade the Russians to change their position. The source said that it was too early to say if the corridors would be included in that resolution.
At the United Nations, the General Assembly is due to vote Thursday on a draft resolution that backs the Arab League plan and calls for the appointment of a joint U.N.-League envoy on Syria. There are no vetoes in General Assembly votes and its decisions are not legally binding.
Juppe said the “symbolic” vote would add to pressure on the Syrian government.
France, the first Western nation to recognize the Libyan opposition early in 2011, has championed the opposition protests in Syria, where it says at least 6,000 people have died.
It considers the opposition Syrian National Council, whose leader is based in Paris, a legitimate partner, but has said it needs to do more to unite its various sectarian strands.
Paris was also behind the U.N. resolution to create a no-fly zone over Libya that permitted action by foreign military forces, including NATO. Russia believes it was misled on that resolution and has vowed to not make the same mistake twice.
The frontrunner for this year’s presidential elections, Socialist Francois Hollande, has backed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s stance on Syria and called for the United Nations to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.
Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Editing by Alistair Lyon