Russia warned Arab leaders against crossing a “red line” in trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said it wasn’t the job of the United Nations to dictate who stays in power and who goes.
Arab League leaders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European foreign ministers called yesterday for the Security Council -- and indirectly Russia -- to adopt the Arab-European plan that would have Assad delegate his authority to a deputy who would start talks with the opposition within two months.
“The Arab League is now in the driver’s seat; sometimes you can press the accelerator too hard and you find yourself in a ditch,” Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said yesterday. “The Security Council cannot prescribe ready recipes for the outcome of domestic political processes.”
Syria was at the center of talks at the world body almost a year after an uprising began against Assad. The UN says more than 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict, which is evolving into a civil war.
As the UN started talks on Syria, Assad’s forces pressed into suburbs in Damascus and other parts of Syria to reclaim areas controlled by the opposition Free Syrian Army, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The army has led a wide-ranging offensive to crush the FSA, made up of defectors and armed civilians, since Jan. 27, he said in an interview yesterday.
Russia blocked a December resolution seeking to hold Assad responsible for the violence in his country and has threatened to use its Security Council veto again. Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union and is a buyer of Russian weapons.
Churkin said an agreement to end the violence in Syria is “not only possible, but necessary,” yet went on to reject any language in the draft resolution that can be interpreted as an attempt to force Assad out.
Once countries start dabbling in regime change “it is difficult to stop, then you will start telling what kings need to resign and what prime ministers need to step down,” Churkin told reporters after the council briefing by top Arab League officials.
The measure was introduced by Morocco, the only Arab nation on the Security Council. Arab and European countries will seek a council vote this week, said U.K Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
“We will hold discussions with Russia and other nations over the next 24 hours to see if we can make progress on this resolution,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in New York.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani made their case before the UN’s decision-making body and sought to reassure Russia on its concerns.
The road map adopted on Jan. 22 should “in no way be interpreted as calling on the Syrian president to renounce power,” El-Arabi said, citing a pledge made to him by Assad in July that he would put his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, in charge. “This is very similar to the call of the Arab League as of now.”
“It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria,” Clinton said in a direct appeal to Russia.
“The alternative -- spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator -- would compound this tragedy, mark a failure of our shared responsibility, and shake the credibility” of the UN, she told the council.
The latest draft of a Western-backed Arab League resolution on Syria also had language directed at Russia: “Nothing in this resolution compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force,” says the draft, obtained yesterday.
Syria’s Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari, Assad’s sole representative at yesterday’s meeting, accused foreign powers of meddling.
“Unbridled tendency by foreign states to interfere in our internal and external affairs through various mean is neither sudden nor novel,” he said.
In Washington, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said yesterday that time is running out for Assad.
“It’s a question of time before Assad falls,” he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Still, he said, “It could be a long time” given a protracted uprising and the fragmentation of the Assad opposition.