France has started helping rebel-held parts of Syria so these "liberated zones" can run themselves and is considering the possibility of supplying heavy artillery to protect them from government attacks, a diplomatic source said on Wednesday.
Paris said last week it had identified areas in the north, south and east that had escaped President Bashar al-Assad's control, creating a chance for local communities to govern themselves without residents feeling they had to flee Syria.
"In zones where the regime has lost control, such as Tal Rifaat (40 km north of Aleppo), which has been free five months, local revolutionary councils have been set up to help the population and put in place an administration for these towns so as to avoid chaos like in Iraq when the regime pulls back," the source said.
The source said France, which last week promised an extra 5 million euros (US$6.25 million) to help Syrians, had started giving aid and money on Friday to five local authorities from three provinces — Deir al-Zor, Aleppo and Idlib. The areas are home to about 700,000 people.
Civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have suffered frequent deadly air strikes from Assad's forces and questions have been raised on how Paris proposes to protect civilians and deter them from fleeing to neighboring countries.
The source admitted some areas still faced sporadic bombardments from Syrian forces, but there was little prospect of them falling back into government hands. He said people in these areas had asked for anti-aircraft weapons.
"It's a subject that we are working on seriously, but which has serious and complicated implications. We aren't neglecting it," the source said.
No-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft could protect rebel-held areas, but there is little chance of securing a UN Security Council mandate for such action, given opposition from veto-wielding members Russia and China.
European powers have also said they will not supply weapons to lightly-armed Syrian rebels, who have few answers to attacks by Assad's planes and helicopter gunships. However, the source implied there may be a shift in Paris' thinking.
"It's not simple. There have been transfers of weapons which then ended up in different areas such as in the Sahel so all that means we need to work seriously, build a relationship of trust to see who is who so that then an eventual decision can be taken. It takes time," the source said.
Paris has increased its dialogue with opposition fighters over the past few weeks, although at this stage no French military advisers are helping them, the source said, adding that France was working to develop links between Syria's political opposition, defectors and rebel fighters.
"It's not especially technical advice, but first and foremost to get them to speak to each other to agree on working together," the source said.
"I think we can hope that in days and weeks to come we will see better coordination between these different structures."