DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Britain and France joined forces with Arab allies on Wednesday to push the U.N. Security Council to back an Arab League call for Syrian President , Bashar al-Assad to step aside, setting the stage for a showdown with Syria’s ally Russia.
"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.
The Security Council could vote as early as next week on a new draft resolution, which delegates from Britain and France are crafting in consultation with Qatar, Morocco, the United States, Germany and Portugalenvoys said. The new resolution replaces a Russian draft Western diplomats said was too weak.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that Assad would “soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed.”
It remains unclear whether Russia - which together with China vetoed a European-drafted resolution in October that condemned Syria and threatened it with sanctions over its 10-month crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators - is prepared to once again to block council action on Syria.
"We hope Russia won’t use its veto against the Arab League, which is what it would be this time," a U.N. envoy said. "They’ll put up a fight. There will be negotiations. We’ll see."
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country remained opposed to sanctions on Syria and reiterated its opposition to military intervention. But the Western-Arab draft, obtained by Reuters, calls for neither military action nor sanctions, but for the council to support the Arab League.
The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the northern town of Idlib was shot and killed on 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 on 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 (6 miles) 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 armoured 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.
Russia, one of Syria’s few allies, continues to sell weapons to Damascus, which European and U.S. officials have criticized. Iran, at loggerheads with Western powers over its disputed nuclear ambitions, is also a strong ally of Assad.
GULF ARAB MONITORS LEAVE SYRIA
More than 50 Arab League 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," the monitor said.
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. chief Ban, setting out their plan for a political solution in Syria and requesting a chance to brief the Security Council soon.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters in New York that the Arab League briefing could take place as early as Monday. Council diplomats said a vote on the new draft resolution could follow shortly thereafter.
The new draft resolution says the Security Council “supports … the League of Arab States’ initiative … to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system … including through the transfer of power from the President and transparent and free elections.”
It falls short of making compliance with the Arab plan legally binding. But it does ask U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report to the council every 15 days on Syria’s compliance with the resolution, which would formally put it on the Security Council’s agenda.
Russia has repeatedly said it does not want Syria to become another Libya, where Moscow contends that NATO misused a Security Council mandate to protect civilians as a vehicle for “regime change.”
But Western diplomats said that Russia might find it difficult to use its veto against a resolution that is simply intended to provide support for the Arab League initiative.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Ayman Samir in Cairo, John Irish in Paris, Dominic Evans in Beirut and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Robert Woodward and Xavier Briand)