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Syria: Russia-West Argue It Out; Damascus Waits It Out

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Western nations in the U.N. Security Council have two choices on Syria: soften the wording on their resolution that asks the Syrian president to delegate his "full authority" to his deputy or face a Russian-Chinese veto.

There was a lot of drama in the Council on Tuesday but no consensus, even though some Europeans want a vote by Friday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke as did the prime minister of Qatar and the secretary-general of the Arab League. Foreign ministers or their deputies arrived in New York from France, Britain, Portugal, Germany, Guatemala and Morocco, the main sponsor of the resolution. (see videos)

Diplomatic niceties were put aside as ministers delivered stinging rebukes for the inaction of the Council. Since Russia has veto power in the 15-nation body, the barbs could only be aimed at Moscow. Russia, backed by China, voted against a European-drafted resolution in October on the violence that began last March and has claimed at least 5,400 lives, including over 300 children, according to UNICEF.

"We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there," Clinton said. "The question is how many more innocent civilians will die before Assad bows to the inevitable, and how unstable a country he will leave behind... Syria belongs to its 23 million citizens, not to one man or his family."

Said France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, "We are coming today to put an end to the scandalous silence of the council," Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague asked "How many people need to die before the consciences of world capitals are stirred?"

"Government killing machine"
The Arab League was blunt. "The Syrian government failed to make any serious effort to cooperate with us," Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister said of the Arab League's attempt at mediation. "The government killing machine continues effectively unabated."

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Dr. Bashar Ja'afari, in a wide-ranging defense of his country, even sparred with Hamad, whose country backed NATO action in Libya. "Is Qatar a member of NATO or the Arab League?" Ja'afari asked.

The resolution, sponsored by Morocco and drafted mainly by France and Britain, backs Arab League proposals that call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to temporarily step aside and hand over powers to his deputy and then form a national unity government until elections can be prepared. It gives Assad 15 days to comply or face further unspecified measures.

The proposed document is under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter which carries no military intervention. And there is no evidence at this time that the United States, Britain or France are planning such intervention, as in Libya. In fact, they went out of their way to deny it with France's Juppé calling it "a myth."

Russia vs. key Arab League proposal
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, made conciliatory statements during his public statement and said in the main he supported the Arab League. But he then told reporters the Council could not endorse Assad's giving up power:

"The Security Council cannot prescribe ready recipes for the outcome of domestic political process. We don't want the Security Council to fall into the habit, because once you stop it's difficult to stop and telling what king needs to resign, what prime minister needs to step down, and this is really not business of the Security Council."

Russia delivers armaments to Syria, the location of its only military base outside of the former Soviet Union. It is also concerned about instability in the area, the prospects of empowering Islamists -- and getting instructions on morals from the West.

It has proposed a dialogue in Moscow but the Syrian opposition says that first Assad has to step down. However, only Russia can pressure Assad into some kind of accommodation and then try again to help set up negotiations in a neutral country.

Russia believes the opposition is responsible for as much violence as the government. The Western powers say the government initiated nearly all the attacks, firing on peaceful demonstrators. In response, citizens took up arms, with the violence likely to spiral out of control.

Then there is the Libyan example when the Council allowed military intervention to protect civilians. But Russia, India and other nations argued that NATO had no mandate to topple Muammar Gaddafi. At a conference in New York last week, sponsored by the Stanley Foundation on the "responsibility to protect, " Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the former U.N. peacekeeping chief, said that "Syria will be the collateral victim of Libya."

Why the Security Council?
According to Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, a Council resolution "is the one available lever that could be brought to bear on a Syrian leadership that feels sheltered by the prevailing divisions on the international scene, and would rather take the country down the road to civil war than negotiate in order to obtain what still can be achieved."

"As more Syrians come to believe that their collective efforts are in vain, that the world has forsaken them, and that the regime can only be fought with its own methods, the nature of the struggle could be transformed into something more fragmented, narrow-minded, and brutal. Those who have given up on everything but God will be easy recruits for the Islamists."