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Friday, February 3, 2012

Draft resolution on Syria watered down, but Russian veto still looms

Arab and Western diplomats in the United Nations drafted a new resolution on Syria that dropped demands for arms embargo and sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but there were yet no guarantees that the veto-wielding Russia and China will not vote against it.

Moscow has been a strategic ally of Syria through its decades under Assad dynastic rule and a major arms supplier to Damascus, and so bristles at outsiders trying to dictate internal political change in Damascus.

Pakistan’s U.N. envoy said on Thursday the council was “two words away” from agreement and the council chairman from Togo said a consensus was near on an amended version of a draft backing an Arab League plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a closed-door session of the world body that Moscow would veto the draft if it were submitted on Friday with a phrase saying the council “fully supports” the plan, several Western diplomats told Reuters.

European and Arab drafters of the text planned to revise the text in a last-ditch attempt to allay Russian concerns and submit an amended version of the resolution to the council later on Thursday, diplomats said.

Churkin told reporters that Thursday’s inconclusive negotiations were “something of a roller-coaster.”

“We have a text which we are going to report to our capitals,” he said. He declined to provide details but suggested how Russia might vote remained an open question. He said the fact that the draft could reach the council “does not pre-judge anything in any way.”

Russia has balked at any language that would open to door to “regime change” in Syria, its most important Middle Eastern ally over the almost half-century that Assad’s family has ruled it.

In Moscow, a top defense ministry official said Russia will not halt its arms exports to Syria despite the violence, as there are no UN sanctions restricting such deliveries. There is, however, an EU arms embargo.

“As of today there are no restrictions on the delivery of weapons and we must fulfil our obligations” said Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, quoted by Russian news agencies. “And this what we are doing.”

Assad has been locked in struggle with a revolt against his rule for the past 11 months, with at least 5,000 deaths by a United Nations count.

Russia and China joined forces in October to veto a Western-drafted U.N. resolution that would have condemned Assad’s government and threatened possible sanctions.

The latest resolution text includes changes made by Arab and European negotiators to meet some of Russia’s concerns. It no longer spells out details of what the Arab plan entails, such as Assad giving up power, although it still “fully supports” the plan.

But those changes were not enough for Moscow. Diplomats said the language in that paragraph would have to be revised in a way that satisfies Russia without diluting the basic idea of the resolution - to have the council endorse the Arab League plan.

Libyan precedent

Russia says the West exploited what it says was fuzzy wording in a March 2011 Security Council resolution on Libya to turn a mandate to protect civilians in the North African country’s uprising into a push to oust the government, backed by NATO air strikes, that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Moscow has also demanded language explicitly ruling out the use of external force in Syria, though the current draft makes clear the council wants the crisis resolved peacefully and the resolution could not be used as the basis for military intervention as in Libya’s uprising last year.

The draft does not threaten Syria with sanctions, also rejected by Russia, but includes a vague reference to possible “further measures” in the event of Syrian non-compliance.

The Syria resolution came to the global body after the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria on Jan. 28 as violence surged. Jordan said on Thursday it was pulling its monitors from that mission, joining the departure of Gulf Arab observers, in response to the league’s move.

Hama Massacre

On the ground in Syria, opposition protesters plan to hold mass rallies across the country on Friday to mark 30 years since the Hama massacre.

Protests would be held in memory of the estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people who perished in February 1982 when president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, launched a fierce assault on the central city of Hama to crush an Islamist revolt.

Activists in Hama itself defiantly painted roads red to symbolise blood and staged a general strike, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The city’s famed waterwheels carried a message that read “Hafez is dead while Hama has not disappeared,” the Britain-based Observatory said.

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