By John Irish and Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 (Reuters) - France and Britain warned Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday that military action to secure safe zones for civilians inside the country was being considered despite the paralysis of the U.N. Security Council over how to end the 17-month conflict.
While the Security Council impasse between western nations and Russia and China means a resolution to approve such a move appears impossible, countries could act outside the authority of the world body and intervene, as happened in Kosovo in 1999.
"We're ruling nothing out and we have contingency planning for a wide range of scenarios," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference at the United Nations ahead of a meeting of Security Council foreign ministers later on Thursday to discuss how to ease Syria's humanitarian crisis.
"We also have to be clear that anything like a safe zone requires military intervention and that of course is something that has to be weighed very carefully," Hague said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is attending the meeting, urged the United Nations on Wednesday to protect displaced Syrians inside their country, but Assad dismissed talk of a buffer zone.
Creating a buffer zone for displaced Syrians would be difficult because a U.N. Security Council resolution would be needed to set up a no-fly zone to protect the area, and Russia and China would not approve such a move, diplomats said.
It is not the first time Russia has posed difficulties for the United States and its allies on the Security Council. In the 1990s, Moscow strongly supported Serbia in the Balkan Wars and acted as Belgrade's protector on the council.
After an ineffectual U.N. presence failed to stop genocide in the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, the United States and its European allies infuriated Russia by bypassing the deadlocked Security Council and turning to NATO to halt the Serbian onslaught in Kosovo with a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.
As Syria spirals deeper into a civil war, the 15-member council is paralyzed as Russia and China have blocked three Western-backed resolutions that criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and threatened sanctions.
France, which is council president for August, had hoped the body could unite to deal with a shortfall in humanitarian aid and convened Thursday's meeting, which will also be attended by ministers from Syria's neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
"If Assad falls quickly, then the reconstruction can take place, but if sadly the conflict continues then we have to examine various solutions. We have to be realistic," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the joint news conference with Hague.
AID FOR REBEL ZONES
But the absence of the U.S., Russian and Chinese foreign ministers at Thursday's meeting highlights the Security Council's failure to end Syria's conflict, which the United Nations says has killed nearly 20,000 people.
Less than half the council members have sent ministers, and of the permanent members - the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France - only Fabius and Hague are attending.
The two countries announced an increase in their humanitarian aid on Thursday - 3 million pounds ($4.74 million)from London and 5 million euros ($6.25 million) from Paris - and called on other states to boost their commitments.
Diplomats said the meeting would not produce any further action on Syria from the Security Council.
"We wanted a resolution on humanitarian issues, but we faced a double refusal," said a French diplomat, who did not want to be identified. "The United States and Britain believe we have reached the end of what can be achieved at the Security Council, and Moscow and Beijing said that such a resolution would have been biased."
Fabius said Paris was channeling some of its aid to areas of Syria no longer under government control so that local communities can self-govern, encouraging people not to flee Syria to neighboring countries.
More than 200,000 Syrians, and as many as 300,000 according to some aid groups, have poured out of Syria since the uprising against Assad's rule began last year, while up to 3 million are displaced. Turkey, which has seen the highest refugee influx, wants a solution to the problem.
The Security Council is due to hear from Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and ministers from Turkey and Jordan.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who will replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League Syria mediator on Saturday, will also attend but will not brief members. Annan blamed the Security Council impasse for hampering his six-month-old bid to broker peace and leading to his decision to step down.
Brahimi met informally with the Security Council on Wednesday and his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters he had been in "listening mode" while he works out how to approach the Syria conflict.
While Thursday's meeting was focusing on the humanitarian crisis, Fabius and Hague urged members of Assad's government and military to defect and renewed their call for Assad to be held accountable before the International Criminal Court.
"Assad is a criminal and a criminal must be judged and punished," Fabius said.
Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>
Free Syrian Army
The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
Syrian National Council
Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>
The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>
The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>
Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>