Clinton, diplomats urge Russia to allow Security Council vote on Syria

January 31, 2012

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Arab and European diplomats at the United Nations on Tuesday in a forceful attempt to win support for tougher action against Syria, even as Russia continued to indicate that it is unwilling to participate in a plan that would ease President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The Security Council meeting provided an extraordinary diplomatic tableau, with Arab leaders publicly denouncing Assad’s government and calling for U.N. help in responding to Syria’s year-long crackdown on protesters. The show of support was calculated to boost the U.S.-backed effort to persuade Russia, Syria’s most powerful supporter, to permit the adoption of a Security Council resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria.

But, in Moscow, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, stood firm, warning that such a resolution would put Syria on the “path to civil war.”

“The Arab League has come to the council seeking support of the international community for a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria,” Clinton told the council as Syria’s U.N. envoy listened on. “We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region, or become complicit in the continuing violence there.”

The high-level diplomatic debate played out as violence escalated in Syria, with nearly 6,000 people dead, and fighting between Syrian armed forces the insurgent Syria Free Army intensifying.

“The killing machine is still at work,” Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani, who has led the Arab effort to isolate and sanction Assad, said at the United Nations.

The debate prompted an outcry from Syria’s U.N. ambassador, who accused the Arab League of betraying the cause of Arab nationalism by promoting an “unjust” political plan and soliciting support from a U.N. security body that has adopted “hundreds of votes against Arab causes.”

The Security Council remains deadlocked in negotiations on a Western- and Arab-backed draft resolution condemning Syria’s violent suppression of protesters and outlining a political road map that would lead to presidential and parliamentary elections in Syria.

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, insisted that the Security Council “cannot impose the parameters for an internal political settlement,” proposing that Moscow host political talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

But there was little chance that such a plan could succeed. Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, has ruled out talks with the government until Assad agrees to step down.

U.S. and European officials, meanwhile, have tried to persuade Moscow to participate in a plan to ease Assad from power, arguing that it is only a matter of time before his government falls and Russia loses its influence in the region.

Syria is an important customer for Russian armaments and hosts a recently reopened Russian naval supply base at Tartus. But analysts say Russia’s reluctance to abandon Assad may have more to do with pride than economic or strategic interests.

“Russian leaders were frustrated — maybe humiliated — after they supported Resolution 1973 of the Security Council,” Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst and deputy editor of the online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said Tuesday, referring to the U.N. action against Libya that led to the NATO bombing campaign.

Russian officials contend that NATO misused the resolution to pursue a much broader air war than it envisioned, and they are apparently wary of the same thing happening in Syria.

“What’s going on in the Syrian situation,” Golts said, “is some kind of revenge.”

In an effort to overcome Russian objections to the draft, the sponsors of the Syria resolution inserted language that explicitly rules out using the text as a pretext for military action, according to a confidential draft obtained by The Washington Post. On Tuesday, Clinton and other supporters of the Arab League initiative drove home the point, saying they have no intention of using force to topple Assad.

“I know that some members here are concerned that we are headed toward another Libya. That is a false analogy,” Clinton told the council. But she said that Assad’s days are nevertheless numbered. “We know change is coming to Syria. Despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime’s reign of terror will end, and the people of Syria will chart their own destiny.”

The draft resolution reiterates the Arab League’s Nov. 2 decision demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from cities, release all political prisoners and provide greater freedom to local and foreign press. It also endorses the Arab League’s Jan. 22 statement outlining a political transition that would require Assad to yield certain powers to a deputy, establish a government of national unity, and prepare the way for free parliamentary and presidential elections.

A copy of the text includes provisions calling on states to prevent the flow of arms into Syria, reinforcing existing Arab League sanctions, and outlining the Arab League’s road map for the transition to a government of national unity.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials are trying to calculate whether the Russians may shift their stance.

“The question we’re asking the Arabs, both the [Syrian opposition] and the Arab League representatives, is how much of this [text] . . . do you want us to negotiate with the Russians to get them on board, or do you simply want to call the Russians out” and dare them to veto, said the official.

Englund reported from Moscow. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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