Opposition SNC seeks humanitarian aid at Syria confab

PARIS/TUNIS Wed Feb 22, 2012 10:30pm GMT

PARIS/TUNIS (Reuters) - The main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) will use an international meeting on the Syrian crisis to push for urgent measures to ferry humanitarian aid to stranded civilians, a move it hopes will win Russian and Chinese support.

Speaking in Paris two days before Arab and Western foreign ministers meet in Tunis, senior SNC official Basma Kodmani said the group would ask Russia to try to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to allow safe passage for humanitarian convoys, averting the need for military intervention to protect them.

The push comes against a backdrop of worsening violence in Syria, where Assad is fighting a nearly year-long uprising against his rule in which thousands have been killed. Unlike Arab and Western proposals to pile diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad to go, the humanitarian initiative is gaining traction.

"Our main objective is to get acknowledgement that this is a humanitarian crisis and then to ensure an urgent humanitarian solution is found," Kodmani said.

"I don't see how Russia or China can be opposed if it is negotiated with them," she said. "It is an intervention but a humanitarian one. It is different from a military intervention, which may well be needed as well."

Russia and China have vetoed Security Council backing for an Arab League plan that asks Assad to hand over power and hold elections and have resisted moves to raise pressure on Damascus.

France first mooted the idea of humanitarian corridors earlier this month but the suggestion initially met with little international enthusiasm.

Russia has since, however, expressed its support for humanitarian efforts that work with the Syrian government and has asked the United Nations to request that the Secretary General send a humanitarian representative to liaise.

It said Wednesday it was working with the Syrian authorities, the opposition and regional powers to secure humanitarian corridors.

"In order to not militarise, the idea is to ask Russia to exert pressure on the regime not to target humanitarian corridors," Kodmani said, adding Russia's absence from the meeting would not be a problem as all parties were in contact.

She said the SNC would propose Friday setting up corridors from Lebanon to the besieged city of Homs, from Turkey to Idlib and from Jordan to Deraa.

In a seven-point plan, the SNC said it would also urge the "Friends of Syria" grouping of Arab and western countries to help civilians by creating safe zones in border areas where refugees could feel protected.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only major NGO active in Syria, is working with the government and opposition to arrange daily ceasefires to ferry in aid and evacuate casualties.

MILITARY AID?

The United States and its allies hope the conference will allow them to begin drawing up a plan of action for Syria after Russia and China vetoed the Arab League plan.

While it would prioritise humanitarian aid at the meeting, the SNC said that if there was no political progress then the Friends of Syria should allow individual members to support the opposition logistically, technically or militarily.

The United States hinted Tuesday that it may be willing to pursue such an option if political channels failed. Even Assad's strongest critics are concerned, however, that such a move could worsen the violence and suck in neighbours, with different countries backing rival groups inside Syria.

With Syrian rebels not receiving any direct military aid, the SNC said it would propose countries prevent arms shipments from reaching Assad, including from main supplier Russia.

It said it would ask Egypt to restrict access to the Suez Canal, and for "Friends of Syria" countries to refuse port services, to vessels carrying weapons to Assad's government.

It would also ask them to help Syria's neighbours secure land borders to keep out foreign fighters.

"We are really close to seeing military intervention as the only solution. There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war," Kodmani said.

(Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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