UNITED NATIONS - The battle over Syria moved to the United Nations yesterday as Western powers and much of the Arab world confronted Russia and its allies in the Security Council over their refusal to condemn the Syrian government for its violent suppression of popular protests.
As top diplomats gathered in the Security Council chamber for the showdown, the steady drumbeat of violence continued without pause in Syria, where government forces used heavy weapons and tanks to push rebels back from strongholds near Damascus.
At the UN, the two sides skirmished over a draft Security Council resolution proposed by Morocco that calls for President Bashar Assad of Syria to leave power as the first step of a transition toward democracy.
But behind all the arguments lurked the ghost of Libya, with Russia determined to block any resolution that might be construed as a license for regime change. Arab and top Western diplomats argued that endorsing the demonstrators was the minimum step required to support popular demands for change that began with peaceful demonstrations and have evolved into an increasingly armed uprising.
“The Syrian government failed to make any serious effort to cooperate with us,’’ Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, told the Security Council about Arab League efforts to mediate the dispute. “The government killing machine continues effectively unabated.’’
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, joined by the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and several other countries, argued that Libya was a “false analogy.’’ The plan for a gradual democratic transition “represents the best efforts of Syria’s neighbors to chart a way forward, and it deserves a chance to work,’’ she said.
The proposed resolution, which most likely would not be voted on before Friday, called for Assad to cede power to his vice president, who would help form a unity government that would prepare for elections. It is unlikely that Assad would heed the demands to step down, even if the resolution made it through the Council.
But that remained a long shot last night. Fundamentally, the argument over Syria reflects a deeper divide between those who would use the Security Council to confront nations over how their governments treat civilians, versus those who feel that it has no role whatsoever in settling domestic disputes. Syria is the latest example in an argument that stretches back through all recent conflicts.
Russia, backed discreetly by China and India, rejects the idea that the world organization can interfere in the domestic politics of any country to force a leadership change. They all feel that they were duped into supporting a no-fly zone over Libya, which was promoted as a means to protect civilians last March. Instead, they said, NATO used it as a license to help overthrow the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
The Russian envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, adopted a “where will it all end’’ argument yesterday. The council, he said, will start saying “what king or prime minister needs to step down. The Security Council cannot prescribe recipes for the outcome of a domestic political process.’’
Yet in a sign that Russia was beginning to feel the need to deflect at least some of the accusations that Moscow is partially responsible for not stemming the rising death toll, Russia distanced itself from Assad himself. The UN stopped tallying deaths after they passed 5,400 in January, saying they were too difficult to confirm accurately, and since then the toll has mounted steadily.
“The Russian policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession,’’ Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during a stop on a tour of Asia.
“We are not friends or allies of President Assad,’’ he went on, according to a transcript on the Interfax news service. “We never said that Assad remaining in power is a precondition for regulating the situation. We said something else - we said that the decision should be made by Syrians, by the Syrians themselves.’’
There is no Western nor Arab League support for the kind of international military intervention that occurred in Libya, because of concerns that an implosion of Syria could drag neighbors like Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon into a wider conflagration.
The goal is to try to stanch the conflict without sparking a sectarian civil war.
In the longest and most emotional speech of the day, Ambassador Bashar Jaafari of Syria evoked the famous Arab poet Nizar Qabbani and the long Arab struggle against colonialism to insult Qatar and others leading the effort to support political change in Syria, suggesting they were joining a Western plot.
But Hamad and Nabil al-Araby, the Arab League secretary general, both pleaded with the council that more international pressure was needed to meet the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people after 11 months of demonstrations.
The league strategy - used as a blueprint for the resolution - mirrors that applied in Yemen, and promoted by Arab states, whereby the longtime autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, transferred power to his vice president after months of often bloody prodemocracy protests.
Critics suggest that strategy aims merely to stop the violence without promoting real change.
The haggling over the wording of the resolution is expected to commence in earnest again today. Russia and China vetoed a similar resolution last October.