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U.N. Assad Ouster Resolution Faces Strong Opposition From Russia

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the U.N. debate on a resolution calling for Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the U.N. debate on a resolution calling for Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down.

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined her counterparts from around the world in a passionate, argumentative session of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, to debate a draft resolution that would press Syria's embattled leader to relinquish power.

"We all know that change is coming to Syria," Clinton said in her remarks at the meeting. "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?"

Clinton made the dramatic decision to attend the debate in person, rather than send her U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, as part of a last-minute effort to reinforce American diplomatic support for the initiative.

The draft resolution, introduced by Morocco at the behest of the Arab League, formally calls for Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down within 15 days, or face "further measures."

Standing in the way of Clinton and her top allies in Britain and France were the diplomats of China, India, South Africa and -- most notably -- Russia, who have argued that a strong resolution against Assad could have unpredictable repercussions and might be the first step to military action.

"We are convinced that at a time of extreme internal political crisis, the role of the international community should not be one of exacerbating conflict or meddling by use of sanctions or military force," said Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, during the debate.

In a statement on his Twitter page early Tuesday, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, went further, writing that the draft resolution would not be a compromise, but a step along the "path to civil war."

Throughout the day Tuesday, and in the unusual wording of the draft resolution, supporters of the measure repeatedly sought to reassure Russia that military force was not on the table.

"We all agree that military action would not be an appropriate response to the situation in Syria, something this draft resolution makes clear," said the British foreign minister, William Hague.

But Russia experts told The Huffington Post that Russia is unlikely to be persuaded, already feeling burned by a U.N. resolution from last March which approved the no-fly zone in Libya.

Russia abstained from that vote, rather than veto it, but later felt that the mission was twisted into a U.N.-sanctioned regime-change operation, said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the Russian policy journal "Russia in Global Affairs."

"The result of that, from the Russian point of view, is that the mandate was terribly abused and that the end result was a mistake," Lukyanov told HuffPost. "So that's why Russia, in the Syrian case, is even more reluctant to intervene."

Russia faces other, domestic obstacles to backing a resolution that would remove Assad from power, experts say.

Maria Lipman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is up for re-election in March, faces tremendous internal pressure from military industrialists, who fear losing valuable contracts with Syria.

"Putin has never been as weak as he is today, and the military industry is an important constituency," Lipman said. "He would look like a traitor, especially if he gives up on his partner; it would look like he was giving up under pressure from the U.S."

Added Lipman: "America and the international community does not have an answer on what's in store after Assad falls, and so Putin is standing up to America. Putin stands up to America, and he shows he will not bend to somebody else's will."

Close observers of the U.N. process tell The Huffington Post that the two sides are still far from an agreement, although some diplomats suggested they heard conciliatory notes in the Russian ambassador's remarks.

The U.S.-Russian relationship has taken such a turn over the Syria resolution that as of midday Tuesday, Secretary Clinton had been waiting 48 hours for her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to return a call to discuss the matter. A State Department spokesman said that Deputy Secretary Bill Burns had spoken more recently with Lavrov's deputy.

Defense experts have told HuffPost that a military option in Syria may not be feasible, but supporters of the U.N. resolution, including advocates of the Syrian opposition, believe that some sort of action on the ground in Syria could be necessary no matter what the United Nations ends electing to do.

"Right now it's the world versus Russia, India, China and South Africa to protect the Syrian Spring and stop the brutal regime," said Ricken Patel, the executive director of the group Avaaz, which supports the opposition. "If these countries block Security Council action by putting anti-Western politics above Syrian lives when even the Arab League is calling on the U.N. to act, they'll have blood on their hands, and it will be up to a coalition of the willing to go in and protect the civilians standing in Assad's crosshairs."

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