DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Arab League monitors said the withdrawal of colleagues by Gulf Arab states would not hinder their work in Syria while France and Britain Wednesday joined efforts at the United Nations to end President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
“The U.N. Security Council must support the Arab League’s courageous decisions which are trying to end the repression and violence in Syria and find a solution to the political crisis,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
“Our aim is to get a resolution approved.” The Security Council could vote as early as next week on a Western-Arab draft resolution, council diplomats said.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address that Assad would “soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country remained opposed to sanctions on Syria and reiterated its opposition to military intervention.
But it is unclear whether Russia is prepared to wield its veto powers again to block council action on Syria.
More than 50 observers from Gulf Arab states left Syria on Wednesday after their governments said they were certain “the bloodshed and killing of innocents would continue.”
Their colleagues in Damascus, about 120 strong, pledged to continue the monitoring mission, now extended until February 23, to verify Syria’s compliance with an earlier Arab peace plan.
“The departure of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries will not have an impact on the mission’s work. We are all professionals here and we can do the job,” said a senior Arab monitor, who asked not to be named.
“We need more monitors of course and more will come soon to replace those who left.”
Syrian opposition groups have accused the observer mission, which began on December 26, of giving Assad diplomatic cover to pursue a crackdown on protesters and rebels in which more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, by a U.N. tally.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who heads the League’s committee on Syria, wrote jointly to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon setting out their plan for a political solution in Syria.
Several diplomats at the United Nations said France and Britain were working with Qatar and other Arab delegations on a new draft resolution supporting the Arab League plan which envisages Assad stepping down and making way for a unity government to halt the bloodshed of a 10-month uprising.
Valero said the talks should enable the Security Council to support and enforce the Arab plan by giving it the necessary international guarantees for it to be implemented.
The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the northern town of Idlib was shot dead Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, in an attack which Damascus blamed on “terrorists.”
State news agency SANA also said a priest was killed by “terrorists” while helping a wounded person in the city of Hama.
The government says it is fighting foreign-backed Islamist “terrorists” who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police. SANA said 30 more were buried in the last two days.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven other people were killed Wednesday. One was killed by soldiers surrounding the Bab Qabli district of Hama and a woman died after a shell landed on her house near the town of Qusair, 10 km from the Lebanese border, it said.
It also reported clashes between army deserters and state soldiers in the rebellious province of Idlib that disabled three armored vehicles and killed or wounded six soldiers.
The revolt in Syria was inspired by other uprisings that have toppled three autocratic Arab leaders over the past year and the bloodletting has battered Assad’s standing in the world.
The Arab League has suspended Syria’s membership and Iran, at loggerheads with Western powers over its disputed nuclear ambitions, is among Assad’s few remaining allies.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem wrote to the Arab League accepting an extension of the monitoring mission. But he rejected the 22-member body’s call for Assad to hand power to his deputy and allow a new unity government to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.
“They have abandoned their role as the Arab League and we no longer want Arab solutions to the crisis,” Moualem declared on Tuesday. “Heading to the Security Council will be the third stage in their plan, and the only thing left is the last step of internationalization.”
Moualem said that while “half the universe is against us” Syria’s long-time ally and arms supplier Russia would never permit foreign intervention. “That is a red line for them.”
Britain, France and the United States have chastised Moscow for continuing to arm Syria despite the upheaval there.
“The supply of arms and aircraft to the Syrian regime will only fuel bloodshed - which is why the EU has imposed an arms embargo on Syria, and we are calling for the U.N. to do the same,” a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office said.
“All Security Council members, including Russia, need to throw their collective weight behind the Arab League’s efforts to stop the violence and achieve a peaceful transition.
“We urge Russia to support these efforts instead of providing cover for a regime’s brutal repression.”
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Ayman Samir in Cairo, John Irish in Paris and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Robert Woodward