Damien McElroy Gaziantep, Turkey August 29, 2012
WESTERN states are working with Turkey to establish buffer zones within Syria, France confirmed as the international community scrambled to formulate a response to the rapidly worsening crisis in the country.
As Syrian government forces launched aerial and artillery assaults on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, French President Francois Hollande declared that he and his international partners were closer than ever before to a formal intervention in Syria.
''We are working … [on] the initiative of buffer zones proposed by Turkey,'' Mr Hollande said. ''We are doing so in co-ordination with our closest partners.''
Mr Hollande also became the first international leader to urge the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, promising to grant it immediate recognition. The United States supports a unified opposition movement, but declined to endorse Mr Hollande's proposal.
US officials said they were only now seeing expatriate activists make good on a promise to recruit support inside Syria for a set of unity principles they drafted in early July. The pact would commit rebels and political opposition figures to resist sectarian reprisals and respect human rights.
With refugees pouring across Syria's borders, and Turkey struggling to respond to the influx, the issue of a buffer zone in northern Syria has acquired a new sense of urgency. Thousands of refugees massed in makeshift accommodation on the Syrian side of the Turkish border yesterday as Ankara sealed its crossings, claiming its camps were full.
With as many as 80,000 refugees spread across camps in southern Turkey, the numbers who have fled violence in Syria has almost doubled in a month.
An official said Turkey was carrying out more stringent security checks on the refugees, amid fears that Kurdish rebels fighting for self-rule in south-east Turkey may be coming in through Syria.
It remains far from clear how a buffer zone would be policed, although it has been assumed that Turkey and Arab states would take the lead.
With rebel fighters and government forces battling each other to near stalemate in the northern city of Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has switched his attention to Damascus.
Last week government forces launched an assault that killed hundreds of people in Darayya, on the south-western outskirts of the city, according to the opposition.
Rebel hopes of capturing either Aleppo or Damascus may well depend on a strategy of dealing with the aerial threat. That appears a long way off, with opposition fighters admitting they brought down a regime helicopter on Monday more by luck than design.
''It was flying overhead the eastern part of the city and firing all morning,'' an activist identifying himself as Abu Bakr said. ''The rebels had been trying to hit [it] for about an hour; finally they did.''
Government forces switched their focus to the east of the capital in a campaign to reassert control. At least 62 people were killed in the assault, opposition activists said, with shells striking flats in Jobar, the district where the helicopter had been shot down. As in Darayya, there were reports of summary executions. Footage from opposition campaigners showed 20 corpses in a mosque in the neighbouring district of Zamalka, among them three children.
The new bloodshed came as volunteers recovered dozens more bodies in Darayya, where the opposition claims that between 300 and 600 people were killed during a five-day battle last week.