UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council could vote as early as next week on a Western-Arab draft resolution endorsing the Arab League's call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, council diplomats said on Wednesday.
It remains unclear whether Russia - which together with China vetoed a European-drafted resolution in October that condemned Syria and threatened it with sanctions over its 10-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators - is prepared to wield its veto powers once again to block council action on Syria.
European and U.S. delegations have been working with Qatar and the Arab Security Council member, Morocco, on a new draft resolution. The text, obtained by Reuters, urges council support for a "political transition" in Syria, where government forces have killed thousands of demonstrators inspired by Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
"We hope to push forward with that in the Security Council quite quickly," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The new draft will replace a Russian text, which Western diplomats say is too weak and no longer relevant in light of the Arab League call for Assad to hand power to his deputy.
Diplomats said they would like to put the new draft resolution to a vote next week. There is also a question of when Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who heads the organization's Syria committee, will brief the council, as the two requested in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
That letter, also obtained by Reuters, calls for a special ministerial level meeting of the 15-nation council on Syria.
One council diplomat said the League proposed holding that meeting on February 8, though Western delegations would like to hold it sooner, using video conferencing technology if necessary.
"What we don't want to do is just do nothing in the Security Council until the eighth (of February)," the senior diplomat said. Another diplomat said the council would be discussing the timing of the Arab League briefing on Wednesday behind closed doors after consultations on Libya.
The Arab League's new plan agreed to at the weekend calls on Assad to transfer power to his deputy and allow the formation of a unity government.
The draft resolution says the council "supports ... the League of Arab States' initiative ... to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system ... including through the transfer of power from the President and transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision."
It makes no mention of sanctions and appears to fall short of making compliance with the Arab League plan legally binding. But it does ask Ban to report to the council every 15 days on Syria's compliance with the terms of the resolution, which would formally put it on the council's agenda.
Russia has repeatedly said it does not want Syria to become another Libya, where Moscow contends that NATO misused its Security Council mandate to protect civilians as a vehicle for "regime change."
But Western diplomats said that Russia might find it difficult to use its veto against a resolution that is simply intended to provide support for the Arab League.
Russia and China have expressed interest in having the head of an Arab League monitoring mission in Syria, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, brief the council as well. Dabi said the level of violence had fallen since the mission arrived in Syria in late December, an assertion contested by Assad's opponents.
Western diplomats, however, said there was no need to have Dabi brief the council and rejected the idea.
The fate of the League's 165-strong monitoring team was thrown into doubt on Tuesday when Gulf Arab states began withdrawing 55 of their monitors, saying they had failed to stem the violence.
Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen