PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande urged Syria's divided opposition to form a provisional government, promising that France would recognize it in hopes of upping the pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime as the violence escalates in the Arab country.
The French leader, clearly frustrated with reticence from China and Russia in crafting a tougher tack against Assad at the United Nations, staked out unprecedented terrain to jolt the opposition into unity.
Hollande's appeal to the opposition underscores the belief in many diplomatic circles that a credible alternative to Assad's regime must take shape first in order to expedite his exit — an outcome France, the U.S. and many other Western powers have sought for months.
Syria's opposition remains badly fragmented, and it is far from clear whether such a provisional government could be formed anytime soon. But Hollande's statement, believed to be the first of its kind, appeared aimed to give an impetus to the creation of such a government in part because there is no international mandate for stronger action.
"France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government — inclusive and representative — that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria," Hollande said in a speech to France's corps of ambassadors.
"We are including our Arab partners to accelerate this step," he said at the presidential palace. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."
The conflict in Syria, which began as popular protests in March 2011 and has evolved into a civil war, is estimated by activists to have killed more than 20,000 people.
Echoing similar concerns expressed recently by President Barack Obama, Hollande said France remains "very vigilant ... to prevent the use of chemical weapons by the (Assad) regime."
Hollande said that any use of chemical weapons to repress Syria's people "would provide a legitimate reason for direct intervention by the international community."
But France sees no clear indication that Assad's forces were taking any steps to employ chemical weapons, said a French official on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
France also has taken steps to support the creation of "free zones" inside Syria — notably along the lines of a buffer zone idea floated by Turkey, Hollande said.
Russia and China have blocked U.N. sanctions against Syria using their vetoes on the U.N. Security Council. Hollande took issue with that, saying Moscow and Beijing's "attitude weakens our ability to carry out the mandate conferred on us by the U.N. charter."
Syria's opposition has been plagued by divisions and infighting since the start of the uprising last year, and forming a transitional government is fraught with difficulties.
Abdelbaset Sieda, the leader of main umbrella opposition group the Syrian National Council, said recently the group was planning and consulting for a transitional government. But several other opposition groups are known to be making similar plans, including a new opposition alliance headed by veteran opposition figure Haitham Maleh.
Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.
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