US, allies urge UN action in Syria
New York - Vowing to avoid "another Libya", the US and its allies challenged Russia on Tuesday to overcome its opposition to a UN draft resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad yield power and end the violence that has killed thousands.
"It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the UN Security Council in backing an Arab League plan for the country.
Russia, one of Assad's strongest allies, has signalled it would veto any UN action against Damascus, fearing it could open the door to eventual international military involvement, the way an Arab-backed UN resolution led to Nato airstrikes in Libya.
But Clinton said UN action in Syria would not involve military intervention, unlike the Nato-led efforts that resulted in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.
"I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya," Clinton said. "That is a false analogy."
The top diplomats from Britain, France and Arab League pressed the same point: The objective of the draft resolution was not military involvement and a continued delay would come at the cost of the lives of innocent civilians.
Reign of terror
"We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there," Clinton told council members.
"Despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime's reign of terror will end and the people of Syria will have the chance to chart their own destiny," she said. "The question for us is: How many more innocent civilians will die before this country is able to move forward toward the kind of future it deserves?"
The diplomatic showdown came as Syrian government forces took back control of the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, after rebel soldiers briefly captured the area in a startling advance last week.
The two-day offensive left more than 100 people dead, making it among the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition group.
The UN estimated several weeks ago that more than 5 400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, but has not been able to update the figure.
Russia has stood by Assad as he tries to crush the uprising. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria's crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its opposition.
Russia stands firm
Moscow's stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defence ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a world order dominated by the US.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Moscow "would never allow the Security Council to authorise anything similar to what happened in Libya".
Saying the UN should not choose sides, Lavrov told the ABC that all parties should cease violence and engage in dialogue. Russia "would not support anything that would be imposed on Syria", he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd emphasized that Assad must go and urged Russia to overcome its reservations regarding the Security Council resolution in lengthy discussions on Tuesday with Lavrov.
"We cannot stand idly by while we see the death of Damascus unfold before us," Rudd told reporters in his hometown of Brisbane on Wednesday. "It's time that we had action from the UN Security Council to start to draw this appalling conflict - this appalling loss of life - to a close."
"Australia's position is clear as we put it to the Russian foreign minister yesterday and that is we need to take action in New York through the UN Security Council. President Assad must go, he must step down, a government of national unity must be formed which brings together elements of the Syrian opposition as well as all those other elements representatives of Syrian society," he added.
Rise for hope
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov also criticised the Western draft Security resolution on Syria. He wrote on Tuesday on Twitter that it "does not lead to a search for compromise. Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war".
Still, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin indicated in his address to the council that agreement could still be reached with more negotiation. He said his country found "some of the elements of our text" in the current draft, "and that gives rise for hope".
An earlier proposal on Syria circulated by Russia had been rejected by some Western and Arab nations for not being strong enough. "We hope the council will come to consensus," Churkin said.
Clinton suggested that more negotiation on the text was necessary before a vote later in the week. "We will have a concerted effort over the next days to reach agreement in the Security Council to put forth a resolution that sends a message to President Assad and his regime," she told reporters.
Earlier in the session, the Arab League made a rare call to the council to condemn violence in a fellow Arab country, and adopt its peace plan.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby told the council that the league wanted the Security Council to act "to support our initiative and not to take its place".
"We are attempting to avoid any foreign intervention, particularly military intervention" in Syria, he said. "We have always stressed full respect of the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian people."
British Foreign Minister William Hague called for speedy action.
"How long do Syrian families have to live in fear that their children will be killed or tortured, before the Security Council will act?" Hague asked. "How many people need to die before the consciences of world capitals are stirred?"
In its current form, the resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab League peace plan calling for him to hand over power to his vice president. If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider "further measures", a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.
In his response, Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari lashed out at the league, accusing it of acting without consulting the Syrian leadership."How strange it is for us to see some members of the League of Arab States seeking the support of the Security Council against Syria," Ja'afari said.
He noted that the Security Council often has voted in support of Israel against Arab-backed measures.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, that he was "encouraged by the League of Arab States' initiative to seek a political solution" to the Syrian crisis.
"It is more urgent than ever to put an end to this bloodshed and violence, to start a credible political solution that addresses the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people and to protect their fundamental freedoms," Ban said.