MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday it would veto any U.N. resolution on Syria that it finds unacceptable, after demanding any measure rule out military intervention to halt the bloodshed touched off by protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The political violence in Syria has killed at least 5,000 people in the past 10 months and activists say Assad’s forces have stepped up operations this week on opposition strongholds, from Damascus suburbs to the cities of Hama, Homs and the border provinces of Deraa and Idlib.
Arab and Western states urged the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to act swiftly on a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to hand powers to his deputy and defuse the 11-month-old uprising against his family’s dynastic rule.
“If the text will be unacceptable for us we will vote against it, of course,” Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told reporters in Moscow via a videolink from New York.
“If it is a text that we consider erroneous, that will lead to a worsening of the crisis, we will not allow it to be passed. That is unequivocal,” he said.
His remarks came hours after Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said there was no chance the Western-Arab draft text could be accepted unless it expressly rejected armed intervention.
Russia and China, both veto-wielding Security Council members, have resisted a Western push for a resolution condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on unrest.
U.N. Security Council ambassadors met in New York on Wednesday to discuss ways to overcome their disagreements on the wording of the draft resolution Morocco submitted to council members on Friday.
Western envoys said they did not expect the closed-door meeting would immediately result in a deal with Russia and predicted further negotiating sessions in the coming days.
Despite the Russian comments, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said a “window of hope” had opened. “We will work furiously in the next few days to try and get a resolution that will allow the Arab League to forge ahead in finding a solution,” he told parliament in Paris.
Russia says the West exploited fuzzy wording in a March 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya to turn a mandate to protect civilians in the North African country’s uprising into a push to remove the government, backed by NATO air strikes, that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia has also expressed concern that the draft’s threat of further measures against Syria could lead to sanctions, which it opposes.
Western envoys in New York said the main sticking point was likely to be not military intervention, on which they said a diplomatic fix was possible, but the resolution’s support for the Arab League plan demanding that Assad give up power. That is seen by Moscow as tantamount to regime change.
The envoys said their biggest challenge would be to reword the draft so that it still endorses the plan but in a way that is weaker than the current version.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters, “Every member of the council has to make a decision: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people? ... Or are you on the side of a brutal, dictatorial regime?”
An activist group said Syrian troops killed eight people in the central city of Homs and that 15 government soldiers were killed in a clash with a defector unit. Syria’s state news agency SANA said a general, Rajeh Mahmoud, was killed along with three soldiers on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday.
Syrian insurgents said Assad’s forces extended a military sweep overnight to counter a rebel threat that had reached the gates of the capital, sending armor into eastern and northern suburbs that Assad’s forces took over this week. An activist group said at least 25 people had been killed in that sweep.
In Wadi Barada on the edge of the capital, four people were killed in a tank bombardment on Wednesday to flush out rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) units operating near the capital, activists said. A rebel spokesman put the death toll at 15.
SANA said troops killed 11 members of an “armed terrorist group” outside the southern city of Deraa, and that government forces discovered bomb factories and field hospitals in a raid on armed cells in Irbin and Sabqa, Damascus suburbs where insurgents had appeared recently.
It was not possible to verify the reports as Syria restricts access for independent media.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the policy of isolation and trying to remove the government risked igniting a “much bigger drama” in the Middle East.
“The people who are obsessed with removing regimes in the region, they should be really thinking about the broader picture,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“And I‘m afraid that if this vigor to change regimes persists, we are going to witness a very bad situation much, much, much broader than just Syria, Libya, Egypt or any other single country.”
Additional reporting Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Mariam Karouny and Joseph Logan in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Louis Charbonneau in New York and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Eric Walsh