European push for UN condemnation of Syria fails

The European push was blocked by resistance from Russia, China and Lebanon.

New York: A European push for the UN Security Council to condemn Syria`s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters was blocked on Wednesday by resistance from Russia, China and Lebanon, envoys said.

"There will be no statement," a Security Council diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Instead, Western countries called a public debate on Syria, but the meeting highlighted differences in the 15-nation council, with Russia charging that it was outside interference in Arab countries that could be a threat to peace.

Earlier this week Britain, France, Germany and Portugal circulated to the other 11 council members a draft statement condemning the crackdown, in which hundreds have been reported killed, and urging restraint by the Damascus government. They were supported by the United States.

But French Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters positions were so far apart that "negotiating a press statement would take so much time that we preferred to have immediately ... a public session to transmit the message”. He said a statement might be issued at some point in the future.

Permanent veto-wielding council members Russia and China have become increasingly critical of the UN-backed intervention to protect civilians in Libya, which they believe aims to oust leader Muammar Gaddafi.

"Their tolerance of US and European attempts to protect civilians in the Middle East appears to have dissipated," a UN official said.

Diplomats said the Lebanese delegation also opposed the idea of condemning Syria. Lebanon, the sole Arab nation on the Security Council, has had a troubled relationship with its neighbour and Syrian influence remains strong there.

Last week, the Council failed to agree a similar statement condemning Yemen`s crackdown against protesters, who have demanded greater freedoms and called on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Divided council

At Wednesday`s debate on Syria, US Ambassador Susan Rice and other Western delegates denounced what they called repression of peaceful demonstrators.

They also backed a call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an independent inquiry into the violence in Syria and voiced scepticism about Syrian reforms, such as the lifting of decades-old emergency rule.

"All announcements of reforms are undermined by the ongoing violence," said German Ambassador Peter Wittig, who like several other Western speakers warned of possible sanctions by the European Union and others. The prospect of sanctions by the divided Security Council looks remote.

But most other speakers took a cautious line, urging restraint and a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis.

Russian envoy Alexander Pankin said the Syrian situation "does not present a threat to international peace and security" -- a condition for Security Council involvement -- and that the demonstrators had also been violent.

"A real threat to regional security, in our view, could arise from outside interference in Syria`s domestic situation, including attempts to push ready-made solutions or taking of sides," he said in a clear hit at the West.

Some demonstrators in Arab countries wanted the outside world to take their side, he said. "Such approaches lead to a never-ending cycle of violence. This is a type of invitation to civil war," Pankin said.

In a defiant speech, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja`afari blamed the violence on "extremist groups whose fundamental objective is clearly the fall of the Syrian government”. The authorities had shown the "utmost restraint”, he said.

"Some of the statements we heard today can only be considered an encouragement to extremism and terrorism," Ja`afari said, repeating allegations from Damascus that foreign forces were inciting the unrest.

France`s Araud dismissed the charge. "Every dictatorship facing opposition usually says there is foreign involvement," he told reporters. "So it`s not new."

Bureau Report