Hollande said he hoped an internationally recognized alternative Syrian government would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. The United States supports such a unified movement, but on Monday it declined to endorse Hollande’s proposal, which would provide Western backing to a decentralized movement that could include extremist elements.
The latest appeal reflects growing frustration — in France and elsewhere in Europe — with international inaction to stop the bloodshed in Syria. On Monday, at least 148 people were killed in an offensive by Syrian government forces in Damascus and the surrounding area, according to opposition activists. At least 42 people died in an aerial bombardment in the northeast suburb of Zamalka.
Earlier in the day, Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter over Damascus, according to the rebel Free Syrian Army. Dramatic video footage of the helicopter attack, posted online Monday, showed a smoking aircraft circling horizontally before taking a dramatic vertical dip and plunging to the ground in flames.
The sound of heavy machine-gun fire can be heard on the video, along with chants of “God is great.”
U.S. officials and outside military experts said it is doubtful that rebels used shoulder-fired or surface-to-air missiles to bring down the helicopter. Those weapons are considered game-changers, and it is unclear whether the rebels have been able to get them.
An estimated 20,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which grew out of prodemocracy protests that began in March 2011. By some measures, the violence has intensified in recent weeks.
On Saturday in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, more than 320 people were killed, many of them shot in the head, in what opposition groups described as the largest massacre of the conflict.
Hollande’s proposal stopped short of an international call to arms but nonetheless recalled former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s early insistence that the world must act to stop atrocities in Libya under Moammar Gaddafi. Although the White House chafed at the pressure, Sarkozy’s readiness to use warplanes to enforce a zone of protection inside Libya helped drive the Obama administration’s embrace of a no-fly zone.
“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.
Many Western nations and Arab countries have called for Assad to leave power, but none has formally recognized the opposition as the country’s legitimate leaders.