U.N. council to vote on Syria resolution Saturday

UNITED NATIONS Fri Feb 3, 2012 6:33pm EST

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council will meet on Saturday to vote on a European-Arab draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, council members announced.

"UN Security Council is set to meet 9:00 a.m. Saturday," Britain's U.N. mission announced on Twitter on Friday. "Plan is to vote on Syria resolution." Other missions confirmed the announcement.

Diplomats said that the meeting was tentatively scheduled for 9:00 a.m. EST (1400 GMT), though Russia had requested that it be pushed back to 11:00 a.m.

Diplomats said it was unclear if Russia, which has opposed significant council action on Syria since an uprising started there 11 months ago, would vote in favor, abstain or veto the resolution.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died in attempts by Syrian government forces to crush anti-Assad protests across the country.

Russia, which threatened on Thursday to veto the text, had promised to submit suggestions for revising the draft on Friday. But diplomats said the drafters had received no proposals from the Russian delegation so far.

Morocco circulated a revised draft on Thursday after Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a closed council session he would veto it if it were put to a vote on Friday with a phrase saying the body "fully supports" the Arab plan, diplomats said.

A senior Western envoy, however, said that by the end of Thursday's meeting the 15 ambassadors had agreed in principle on the new text, retaining the "fully supports" phrase, but that a final decision rested with national capitals.

On Friday, Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying in Moscow the draft was "not enough for us to be able to support it in this form."

Churkin was expected to deliver Russian suggestions for further revisions, diplomats told Reuters. But as of 5:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Friday the Russian delegation had not presented any new language, they said.

RUSSIA WORRIED ABOUT REGIME CHANGE

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told Al Jazeera television on Thursday that the Arab League would not accept any further concessions.

"The version which we have is the minimal which we can accept," he said, adding that if Russia did not support the current version, it should use its veto.

Diplomats said Moscow was signaling that it did not want to veto the resolution, as Russia and China did in October to a European-drafted resolution condemning Syria. But envoys cautioned that the Russians would not hesitate to vote against a text they consider to be unacceptable.

The issue, they said, could be decided by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who plan to meet on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany at the weekend.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Clinton and Lavrov spoke on the telephone on Friday. They agreed that their U.N. delegations would continue working and the two would discuss the issue in Munich.

Russia, a long-standing ally of and arms supplier to Damascus, has been concerned that a Security Council resolution could be seen as promoting "regime change" there or even lead to Libya-style outside military intervention in the conflict.

A senior U.S. official declined to predict what the final vote would be but suggested the majority of the council backed it. "We are cautiously optimistic that we will have a very strong show of support for this resolution," the official said.

If Moscow votes for the resolution, it likely will be adopted unanimously, as China and Pakistan are expected to follow Moscow's lead, U.N. envoys said. All other council members have already signaled they will vote for it.

An abstention from Moscow would allow the resolution to pass, although it would register a certain level of disapproval.

The latest draft includes changes made by Arab and European negotiators to meet some of Russia's concerns. It calls for a "Syrian-led political transition," does not criticize arms sales to Syria and leaves out some of the details of what the Arab plan entails, such as Assad transferring power to a deputy.

But the draft still says the council "fully supports" the Arab plan, language Moscow has said it dislikes.

Western envoys said they and the Arabs were trying to assure the Russians the resolution is not aimed at regime change in Syria or a precursor to foreign military intervention. The new draft makes clear that it cannot be used to authorize force.

The draft does not threaten Syria with sanctions, also rejected by Russia, but includes a vague reference to possible "further measures" in the event of Syrian non-compliance.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip in New York and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Beech)