A high-powered gathering of Arab and Western diplomats pressed Russia and other allies of Syria to support U.N. Security Council action aimed at ushering Syrian President Bashar Assad from power to end a bloody crackdown on opposition supporters.
At a Security Council session Tuesday, diplomats from the Arab League, the United States and Europe argued that those who continue to support the Syrian regime are allowing what started as a peaceful "Arab Spring" protest movement 10 months ago to spiral into full-blown civil war. They pushed the council to approve an Arab League-sponsored resolution calling for Assad to cede power as part of a transition to democracy.
"We have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region, or become complicit in the continuing violence there," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the council.
The gathering was intended as a demonstration of unity to convince Russia and like-minded countries that they will be isolated if they continue to oppose a change in Syria's government. The Western diplomats claimed to have support from 10 of the 15 Security Council members going into the meeting and hope to work out an agreement that averts a Russian veto at the United Nations this week.
They argue that the resolution should be more palatable because the Arab League took the lead role.
"This is not the West telling Syria what to do.... This is the Arab nations calling on the Security Council to act," said William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary.
Yet Russian officials showed little appetite for a deal, saying they would veto the resolution as unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. Russia, China and other opponents of the resolution have warned that it would provide international blessing for a Western-led military intervention similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air campaign in Libya last year.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, told the council that "the role of the international community is not to exacerbate conflict."
In her comments, Clinton said warnings that "we are headed toward another Libya … is a false analogy." She said the Arab League's plan would lead to a new government that "would preserve Syria's unity and institutions."
Arab and Western diplomats said the Security Council should be ashamed that it has not acted despite a death toll now approaching 6,000.
"We are coming today to put an end to the scandalous silence of the council," said Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister.
Officials of the Arab League and Qatar say having the autocratic Assad step aside would allow the Syrian public to choose what kind of government it wants.
"We are not after regime change," insisted Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League. "We believe this is rather that the Syrian people should decide."
Yet his statement underscored the gap between some of the Arab countries and the Western allies. Some Western officials, while expressing support, worry that in leaving the future murky, the plan will not resolve who is in charge in Syria, just as a succession plan for Yemen sponsored by Persian Gulf countries has failed to resolve the internal fighting in that country.
Senior U.S. and European officials say that though they are willing to compromise on some elements of the Arab League plan, Assad's departure is nonnegotiable.
Syria is Russia's most important ally in the Middle East, purchasing billions of dollars in Russian arms and providing a valuable naval base for Moscow. But diplomats argued to the Russians that sticking with Assad would only alienate other Arab countries that are also important to Moscow and would leave it in an embarrassing diplomatic isolation.
China and India have also expressed deep reservations about the Arab League plan. But they have not played up the issue as Russia has. In the council debate, they remained vague.
For Assad, whose family has held power for four decades, avoiding U.N. censure is key to what many observers see as his ultimate strategy: clinging to power by outlasting his adversaries. Opposition activists assert that Assad was never serious about embracing the Arab League peace plan, but went along with it to buy time for his beleaguered administration.
The Syrian leadership, observers say, has calculated that it can survive economic sanctions, including an oil embargo by the European Union. And, despite the apparently growing size of the armed opposition, Assad's advisors are confident that Syria's 200,000-strong military can crush any internal threat.
However, the Assad regime is extremely mindful of the example of Libya and has pushed hard to avoid what it calls "internationalization" of Syria's conflict.
By most accounts a Libya-style bombing offensive is off the table, and some opposition figures have backed less intrusive measures, such as the deployment of international "peacekeepers," ostensibly to protect civilians, or the establishment of "safe zones" near Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan.
Any such U.N. initiative, analysts say, could ultimately undermine Assad's already tenuous hold on power. Internationally recognized safe zones along Syria's frontiers could facilitate the flow of weapons to the rebels, provide a rest zone for fighters and aid in training and recruitment.
To date, the Syrian military, with its superior firepower and armor, has been able to flush out rebels who briefly seized control of towns and neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, at least 20 more fatalities were reported, including 10 in the restive northern province of Idlib, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition. The group has reported that more than 300 were killed by government forces in the last five days.
There was no way to verify the numbers because much of Syria is closed off to foreign journalists.
A government offensive this week also forced insurgents to pull back from restive suburbs near Damascus, the capital.
Richter reported from the United Nations and McDonnell from Beirut. Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.