France’s defense minister said Thursday that an “international coalition” should consider enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, as Western countries stepped up planning for emergency scenarios.
The developments came as Syrian authorities claimed successful offensives against rebels in Greater Damascus and Aleppo, and activists said nearly 200 people were killed in the fighting and violence throughout the country.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said completely closing Syria’s airspace was equivalent to “going to war” and would require a willing international coalition that does not yet exist.
But the minister told television station France 24 that France would participate in such an operation if it followed international legal principles.
Le Drian’s statement marked the first time a senior French official had suggested that an “international coalition,” rather than the United Nations, could intervene in Syria.
Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have blocked intervention in Syria.
For now, though, Le Drian suggested that a partial closure – which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was considering – should be studied.
In Istanbul, American and Turkish officials held a meeting to discuss planning for emergency scenarios that may arise in Syria, including the possible use of chemical weapons, as fighting between government troops and rebels intensifies.
Turkish Foreign Ministry Deputy Under-Secretary Halit Cevik and U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Jones led the delegations made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the Ankara meeting, a Foreign Ministry source told AFP.
The meeting lasted for eight hours, but no press statement was issued after the closed-door talks.
Senior diplomats, military and intelligence officials met to go over detailed operational plans for a range of contingencies, the State Department said.
In addition to responding to the potential use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad’s regime and securing them once he is out of power, the officials focused on short-term aid for Syrian refugees and how to assist whatever government that follows in maintaining law and order, the department said.
The meeting was the first of a new U.S.-Turkish working group aimed at coordinating Syria policy.
The chemical weapons issue was the subject of a phone call between British Prime Minster David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama late Wednesday – they warned they would be forced to consider a new course of action if Syria threatened to use chemical weapons against rebel fighters.Cameron and Obama agreed that “the use – or threat – of chemical weapons was completely unacceptable and would force them to revisit their approach so far,” according to the Downing Street statement.
“Both said that they wanted to see a credible opposition and hoped that the opposition would use their upcoming meeting in Cairo to show real unity of purpose and coherence in working towards transition,” added the statement.
Cameron, who has just returned to Westminster after the summer break, spoke separately to French President Francois Hollande in a bid to ensure that Syria remained the focus of international attention.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry’s point man on Syria said that Moscow had guarantees from the Syrian government that it would not use or move its chemical weapons.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, speaking in an interview to the Associated Press, said that Russia was working closely with the Syrian government to make sure its arsenal of chemical weapons remained securely in place and did not fall into the hands of terrorists.
Gatilov said Russia was in full agreement with the Americans on the need to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons from being used.
On the ground, troops and tanks swept into a restive town near Damascus in an assault aimed at crushing opposition to Assad.
Artillery and helicopters hammered the town of Daraya for 24 hours, killing 15 people and wounding 150, before soldiers moved in and raided houses, opposition sources said.
About 100 people, including 59 civilians, were killed in violence across the country, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the Syrian Revolution General Commission cited a casualty figure of 145, with most killed in and around the capital. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, said 200 people had been killed.
There was little resistance as Assad’s forces pushed toward the center of Daraya, on the southwest edge of Damascus. Armed rebels had apparently already left, activists in Damascus said.
“They are using mortar bombs to clear each sector. Then they enter it, while moving toward the center,” said Abu Zeid, an activist speaking by phone from an area near Daraya.
Assad’s military had driven insurgents from most of the areas they seized in and around the capital after a bomb killed four top security officials on July 18. But rebels have crept back, regrouping without taking on the army in pitched battles.
In Aleppo, the Syrian army has recaptured Christian areas in the city after heavy fighting with rebels, leaving streets desolated and deserted apart from local youths on patrol, residents said.
“We have had the worst two days of our lives,” Sonia, the wife of a wealthy businessman in the northern city which is also Syria’s commercial capital, told AFP by telephone.
“If our house weren’t built like a fortress, we’d all be dead. The entrance is very badly damaged. We couldn’t sleep all night,” said the resident of Telal, which the army seized Wednesday along with Jdeideh and Suleimaniyeh.
Aleppo residents reported heavy exchanges in the city during the army’s offensive to recapture the three neighborhoods seized by the rebels over the weekend.
Of the three Christian quarters in the historic Old City of Aleppo, Jdeideh and Telal were once frequented by tourists for their restaurants and handicraft shops.
The rebel Free Syrian Army had also seized the nearby neighborhood of Suleimaniyeh, most of whose inhabitants are Armenian Christians and which is home to ancient monasteries and a Melkite Greek Catholic cathedral.
The bishop of the cathedral on Farhat Square, left pockmarked by the fighting, himself had to beat a hasty retreat before the rebels moved in because of his pro-regime comments, another resident told AFP.
“The battles Monday and Tuesday were very violent, and they lasted for many long hours before the army managed to expel the rebels,” said a local who declined to be identified. He said dozens of rebels had been rounded up.
“Hundreds of residents of the districts of Telal and Suleimaniyeh took to the streets to celebrate and express their support for the army,” he added.
“The army had to retake these neighborhoods because many homes have tunnels leading to the nearby citadel.”
The state news agency SANA said civil defense and public services were “sent back immediately to carry out the necessary repairs and restore normal life to the neighborhoods after they were cleansed of terrorists.”
Locals have set up “popular committees” to prevent their return, according to residents and a security source.
“It’s not very organized but there are youths especially in the Armenian districts protecting buildings against any new incursions. Some of them are armed and they can call on the army at any time to intervene,” a witness said.
While the forces of Assad’s regime claimed successes in Syria’s two biggest cities, rebels in Albu-Kamal, across the border from the Iraqi town of Qaim, continued to take and hold territory, according to the opposition Syrian Human Rights Observatory.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said rebel fighters took over several checkpoints, the main police station and the local command of the Political Security Directorate, one of Syria’s powerful intelligence agencies.
The border crossing has been in rebel hands since last month, but wresting control of Albu-Kamal itself from regime troops would expand the opposition foothold along the frontier.
The LCCs said warplanes bombed Albu-Kamal, but Abdul-Rahman said the jets were flying over the town and struck nearby areas, not the town itself.
Abu Omar al-Deiry, an activist in the eastern city of Deir al-Zuor, said by telephone that there were “fierce battles” in Albu-Kamal and that “the Free Syrian Army is trying to liberate and clean the city.” (daily star)