PARIS – French President Francois Hollande urged Syria's divided opposition on Monday to form a provisional government, promising that France would recognize it in hope of accelerating the departure of 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 opposition leaders into unity - both anti-Assad fighters on the ground in Syria and exiles working abroad to end his reign.
Hollande's appeal to the opposition underscores a belief in many diplomatic circles that a credible alternative to Assad's regime must take shape first in order to expedite the Syrian leader's exit - an outcome that 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.
Many Western nations and Arab countries have called for Assad to leave power, but none has gone so far as to formally recognize the opposition.
"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, without elaborating. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."
In Washington, American officials said the French call for a Syrian provisional government wasn't coordinated with anyone else, and that the U.S. wouldn't echo the statement anytime soon. The officials called it premature to speak about a provisional government when Syria's fractured opposition hasn't even agreed yet on a transition plan. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Hollande has come under criticism over his Syria policy from France's conservative opposition — notably by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy — who this month said France should take action as it did in the NATO-led campaign in Libya that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi. Sarkozy was French president during the first 14 months of the Syrian conflict and he did not call for military action without an international mandate either.
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. Over the weekend, evidence mounted of mass killings by government forces in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
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 are taking any steps to employ chemical weapons, a French official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
French officials noted a push for international military action in Syria could prove to be a dilemma for Obama, who is vastly popular in France and up for re-election this fall, because they feel that the U.S. public has little appetite for a new intervention in the Middle East after wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.
France also has taken steps to support the creation of "free zones" for the protection of displaced people 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 by using their vetoes on the U.N. Security Council. Hollande took issue with that, saying Moscow's 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 in Paris, Bradley Klapper in Washington, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.