France has called for a "secured zone to protect civilians" in Syria, the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention on the ground in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also described Syria's exiled opposition National Council as "the legitimate partner with which we want to work", the biggest international endorsement yet for the nascent opposition body.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to engage with the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, but stressed the need for them to maintain a peaceful, non-sectarian approach.
Asked at a news conference on Wednesday after meeting the SNC president if a humanitarian corridor was an option for Syria, Juppe ruled out military intervention to create a "buffer zone" in northern Syria but suggested a "secured zone" may be feasible to protect civilians and ferry in humanitarian aid.
"If it is possible to have a humanitarian dimension for a secured zone to protect civilians, that then is a question which has to be studied by the European Union on the one side and the Arab League on the other side," Juppe said.
Further details of the proposal were not immediately available. Until now, Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Syria but have shown no appetite for intervention on the ground in the country, which sits on the fault lines of the ethnic and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
"The French have tried to position themselves in a position of leadership, first with Libya and now here," said Hayat Alvi, a lecturer in National Security studies, at the U.S. Naval War College. "Military intervention in Syria is a very different prospect of that in Libya, but we could well see an increase in covert action."
The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership over the conflict, one of the most important signs of Assad's isolation, but has shown little appetite for international intervention.
Britain said it welcomed the opportunity to discuss the French proposal and repeated its call for Syria to end human rights violations.
Ashton's spokesman said the EU foreign policy chief had met this week with leaders of the Syrian National Council. "The EU stands ready to engage with the Syrian National Council and other representative members of the opposition who adhere to non-violence and democratic values," he said.
Addressing the need for a humanitarian response, he said: "Protection of civilians in Syria is an increasingly urgent and important aspect of responding to the events in the country."