PARIS – France's foreign minister gave a strong endorsement to the opposition Syrian National Council on Wednesday, and said he would seek EU-backed humanitarian corridors for Syrians amid a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests.
After a meeting with its leader, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the Syrian National Council "the legitimate interlocutor with whom we want to continue working."
He said France would seek formal recognition for the group by the Arab League and other allies.
The Council's leader, Burhan Ghalioun, interpreted the French comments as a victory.
"We cannot have greater, more important recognition than what the minister just said. ... We have been recognized," Ghalioun told reporters afterward.
France, Syria's one-time colonial ruler, was the first country to formally recognize Libya's opposition early in Muammar Qaddafi's crackdown on protests, and France played a prominent role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes against Qaddafi's forces.
On Syria, France appears to be taking a slightly more cautious path.
"The military option is not on the agenda," Juppe said Wednesday, focusing instead on diplomatic efforts. "An armed reaction could provoke a real civil war inside Syria and that could be the worst situation for the country."
"At the request of the Syrian National Council, we will ask our European partners about the possibility of launching humanitarian operations to alleviate the suffering of the population," Juppe said. "Should we create humanitarian corridors, or humanitarian zones?"
He did not elaborate on what such operations could entail.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is under mounting worldwide pressure to end eight months of bloodshed in which nearly 4,000 people have been reported killed.
Ghalioun, a longtime professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, said he wants the scattered Syrian opposition to find a "common platform" for the "fight for freedom."
He said he supports the Free Syrian Army, a group of thousands of army defectors, but only wants their backing for defensive actions, "to protect soldiers who have fled the army and protect peaceful demonstrators -- not in offensive actions against army positions."