U.N. Council urged to act; Syria forces retake Damascus suburbs
UNITED NATIONS/AMMAN (Reuters) - Arab and Western states urged the U.N. Security Council to act swiftly on a resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside as his government's forces reasserted control of Damascus suburbs on Tuesday after beating back rebels at the gates of the capital.
The comments were apparently designed to confront Russia over its reluctance to support the resolution and condemn Assad's government for its violent suppression of the protests.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called for the council to take "rapid and decisive action," on a resolution that would endorse the league's demand that Assad delegate powers to his deputy and defuse the 10-month uprising against his family's dynastic rule.
"Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight," Elaraby said.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim warned the 15-nation body that Syria's "killing machine is still at work."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly backed the Arab League's call for rapid Security Council action and warned that the violence was pushing Syria to the brink of civil war.
"The evidence is clear that Assad's forces are initiating nearly all the attacks that kill civilians, but as more citizens take up arms to resist the regime's brutality, violence is increasingly likely to spiral out of control," Clinton told the Security Council.
"We all have a choice: stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there."
At the same time, Arab and Western nations made clear they were trying to avoid a Libyan-style foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis, which they fear could prompt Russia to veto the resolution.
"We are not calling for a military intervention," Sheikh Hamad said. "We are advocating the exertion of concrete economic pressure so that the Syrian regime might realize that it is imperative to meet the demands of its people."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the council the resolution "does not call for military action and could not be used to authorize it." French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described the idea of such intervention as a myth.
The fate of the resolution depends on whether Russia, one of Assad's few remaining allies, can be persuaded not to veto the resolution.
Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said agreement among council members was still possible and the inclusion of some of Russia's ideas in the draft resolution was a positive sign.
"We found some of the elements of our text in it, and this gives rise for hope," Churkin said, referring to an earlier Russian draft resolution on Syria that had been rejected by Western powers and the Arab League as too weak.
"We hope that the council will come to consensus on the Syrian issue, as is not only possible but also necessary."
Diplomats have been haggling for days to find a text Moscow will not block, with a main sticking point being the degree to which it expresses support for the Arab plan for Assad to give up powers, U.N. diplomats said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament: "What ... the foreign secretary is doing today with colleagues at the U.N. Security Council is trying to build the strongest possible resolution and say to the Russians: 'Really, if you go on vetoing or preventing these motions, you are going to be completely outside, not just world public opinion, but the very, very clear, expressed opinion of the Arab League themselves.'"
On the battlefront, activists in eastern districts of Damascus said troops fired in the air as they advanced beyond areas from which the defector Free Syrian Army withdrew, capping three days of fighting activists said killed at least 100 people. Tanks also swarmed into the area.
"The suburbs are under an unannounced curfew. A small grocery shop opened this morning and soldiers came and beat the owner and forced him to shut down," said an activist in the Ain Tarma neighborhood on Tuesday.
Others said residents of some eastern districts were allowed to flee their neighborhoods in vehicles by advancing troops, but that security forces in the district of Irbin had rounded up young men at gunpoint and detained them.
Events on the ground are difficult to confirm as the Syrian government restricts most access by journalists.
Activist groups said 25 people were killed on Monday in Damascus suburbs and dozens more died in other parts of the country, mostly in raids in and around the central city of Homs, which has seen some of the heaviest attacks by Assad's forces.
The uprising against Assad - one of the most violent revolts of the "Arab Spring" - has entered a new phase in recent weeks, with an insurgency whose leadership is based in Turkey daring to show its face at the outskirts of the capital.
A last-ditch bid by Moscow to broker talks between Assad's government and rebels foundered when the opposition refused to attend, citing the continued killing, torture and imprisonment of the president's opponents.
Washington says countries need to accept that Assad's rule is doomed and stop shielding him in the Security Council.
"I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria," U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on Tuesday.
A draft of the U.N. Security Council resolution obtained by Reuters emphasizes "the need to resolve the current crisis in Syria peacefully" and neither authorizes the use of force against Assad nor explicitly bars it.
A major sticking point is language in the draft that "fully supports" the Arab plan, U.N. diplomats said. European delegations were prepared to dilute that language to win over Moscow, while Arab and U.S. delegates were less inclined to compromise, the diplomats said.
One of Russia's leading defense and security think-tanks, CAST, said Moscow could lose billions of dollars in military contracts with Assad if he is pushed aside.
China is expected to join Russia in either vetoing the draft or abstaining to let it pass. So far Moscow has shown little sign of agreeing to allow the resolution, but some Western diplomats say they still hope Moscow will not block it.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for consensus among the Council to stop the bloodshed, saying: "Every day tens of people are killed ... It is crucially important for the Security Council to act on this."
Syria is the main Arab ally of non-Arab Iran, which has often put Assad at odds with other Arab leaders.
"America's plan for Syria is evident and unfortunately some foreign and regional countries take part in America's plans," Iran's IRNA news agency quoted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying on Tuesday.
Assad's forces appear to have decisively beaten back an attempt by the opposition to assert themselves near Damascus.
An activist said armed defectors mounted scattered attacks on government troops who advanced through the district of Saqba, held by rebels just days earlier.
Rebel forays near the capital follow a negotiated victory in Zabadani - a town of 40,000 in mountains near the border with Lebanon - where government forces pulled back under a ceasefire.
Some rebel commanders have spoken of creating "liberated" territories to force diplomatic action.
Amour-backed troops entered al-Adawiya district in Homs, driving out Free Syrian Army rebels. Residents said tank bombardment and gunfire could be heard across the city in one of the heaviest barrages in weeks, and activists reporting dozens of casualties and field hospitals full of wounded.