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Diplomatic showdown at UN over Syria Add to ...

Syrian government forces fought running street battles near Damascus, ousting rebels from their strongholds, as a dramatic diplomatic showdown took place Tuesday at the United Nations.

There, Arab and Western states joined political forces against Russia, which is threatening to veto the latest initiative to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

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The resolution under debate at the UN Security Council stops short of calling for military intervention, but it presses Mr. Assad to step down or face “further measures” in 15 days.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Security Council in backing an Arab League plan for the country.

It is unclear whether the plan's proponents – the Arab League, the United States, Britain and France – will succeed, even as violence intensified.

Syria is suffering its bloodiest days since the Arab Spring movement spread to the nation that has been ruled by the al-Assad family since 1970. More than 100 people have been reported killed so far this week and the latest figures from the United Nations suggest that more than 5,400 people have died in the revolt so far.

Neighbouring countries such as Israel and Turkey have expressed rising concern that Mr. al-Assad's hard-line response could threaten stability of the region. As violence intensifies, the heavyweights of the Security Council appear to be digging in ahead of Thursday’s UN vote.

As violence intensifies, the heavyweights on different sides of the issue appear to be digging in ahead of Thursday’s vote.

ARAB LEAGUE The Arab League’s call to condemn violence in Syria and demand Mr. al-Assad step aside is modelled on what analysts call “the Yemen plan,” considered more palatable than the “Libya option.”

The latest draft resolution also signals a growing consensus among Arab countries to ostracize Mr. al-Assad. In the 22-member Arab League only two are resisting the latest initiative. One is Lebanon, fearing violence along its shared border with Syria. The other is Algeria, whose authoritarian regime worries about its own hold on power.

Qatar has emerged as the most hawkish of the Arab countries on Syria. The Emir of Qatar, which sent warplanes to join in military strikes that aided rebels in Libya last year, recently went as far as to suggest that “some troops should go to stop the killing” in Syria.

The tiny but powerful country holds increasing sway over the debate, according to Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. “We know there is at least the political will for military in Qatar,” he said.

While Russia’s veto power makes such a move unlikely, Prof. Jouejati said that Washington might come around.

“Whatever the Arab League has adopted in this Arab Spring, the United States has more or less come to be supportive of,” he added.

THE UNITED STATES As the Security Council debates the latest draft resolution on Syria, the Republican Party primaries are winding down. The fact that this is an election year in the United States is lost on no one. With America’s fighting forces having left Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the last thing Washington wants is another war, analysts said.

While Qatar has suggested sending troops into Damascus, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton played down such a prospect in her remarks yesterday. “I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya,” she said, adding that “that is a false analogy.”

Washington appears to favour a more nuanced approach that would see Syrian government and opposition leaders negotiate an end to the conflict. It also is wary of getting pulled into a proxy war with Iran, and irritating its allies, Jordan and Israel, which fear regional destabilization.

“We can appreciate the need for what you might call a soft landing,” said David Mack, a former American ambassador in the Middle East and vice-president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

“This is not a case of a government that seems out of control, like we saw in Libya,” he added. “In fact, one has the feeling of a rather calibrated use of force, but this has really gone on for too long.”

He said patience with Russia’s position is wearing thin. As he put it, “Are they so attached to their relationship with Bashar al-Assad that they’ll go down with him?”

RUSSIA Moscow has proved a staunch ally of Mr. al-Assad since the uprising began 11 months ago, its loyalty stemming from historic strategic and defence ties with Damascus. Russia used its veto power to strike down the first Security Council attempt in October to censure Syria’s crackdown and, today, shows no signs of altering its stand.

Russia is completely opposed to any draft resolution that sets the stage for foreign military intervention or even sanctions, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

“They want the blame for the atrocities, the killings in Syria to be shared between the Assad regime and the opposition,” Mr. Trenin said.

Russia’s position on Syria is amplified by a simmering suspicion of the Arab League, which it sees as unfairly influenced by the revolutionary governments in Libya and Tunisia.

On the fate of Mr. al-Assad, Moscow treads a careful line, according to Mr. Trenin.

“They are concerned they are being portrayed as pro-Assad, responsible for the massacre of innocents at the hands of Assad’s forces,” he said. “At the end of the day, they are open-minded about his future. They do not rule out that he may need to go down, but they want to keep a foothold in Syria and they do not want to go down with him.”

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