A European push for the United Nations Security Council to condemn Syria’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters was blocked early Thursday by resistance from Russia and China, envoys said.
“There will be no statement,” a Security Council diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Instead, Western countries called a public debate on Syria, but the meeting highlighted differences in the 15-member council, with Russia charging that it was outside interference in Arab countries that could be a threat to peace.
The stormy Security Council meeting on Syria, coming only days after the body failed to agree a statement on Yemen, highlighted a growing divide on how to handle the uprisings in the Middle East and Arab world.
The Security Council will debate the latest events in Libya later on Thursday.
France called for “strong measures” against Syria if President Bashar al-Assad rejects appeals to end violence in which hundreds have died. The United States said Mr. Assad must “change course now” and end the use of tanks and guns, according to Agence-France Presse.
Protesters who began with demands for greater freedom “are now increasingly calling for the downfall of the regime” echoing slogans heard in other Arab nations, B. Lynn Pascoe, UN under secretary general for political affairs, told ambassadors.
Highlighting the “increasingly violent repression” and “siege-like conditions” in Deraa and other cities, he estimated a death toll of between 350 and 400 people since mid-March. Rights groups say at least 450 people have been killed.
Earlier this week Britain, France, Germany and Portugal circulated to the other 11 council members a draft statement condemning the crackdown and urging restraint by the Damascus government. They were supported by the United States.
After blocking the council statement on Syria, Russia, a close ally of the Mr. Assad’s government, insisted the crackdown was not a threat to international peace that would justify UN action.
“A real threat to regional security could come from outside interference in Syria’s domestic situation,” said Russia’s deputy ambassador Alexander Pankin, AFP reported.
He warned the international community against “taking sides” in Syria and other Arab countries.
“Such approaches lead to a never ending circle of violence. This is a type of invitation to civil war,” Mr. Pankin said.
China’s envoy Li Baodong also called for “constructive help” for Syria.
Turbulence in the Arab countries hit by uprisings has “dealt a big blow to the stability in the whole region,” he said.
“If these issues are not addressed appropriately they will jeopardize peace and stability in other regions,” Mr. Li said.
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 Qaddafi.
Diplomats told Reuters that 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 neighbor and Syrian influence remains strong there. Many diplomats say that it would be unlikely for Lebanon to openly take a position condemning Syria.
At early Thursday’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 Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations for an independent inquiry into the violence in Syria and voiced skepticism about Syrian reforms, such as the lifting of decades-old emergency rule.
But most other speakers took a cautious line, urging restraint and a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis.
In a defiant speech, Syria’s Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari called Ms. Rice’s comments a “Hollywoodian attempt” to link the close allies.
He 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, according to Reuters.
“Some of the statements we heard today can only be considered an encouragement to extremism and terrorism,” Mr. Ja’afari said, repeating allegations from Damascus that foreign forces were inciting the unrest.
Rights groups said the UN should get tougher, according to AFP. “Countries blocking further Security Council action, Russia chief among them, should explain why in their view Syrians are not worthy of the council’s protection,” said Human Rights Watch's UN director Philippe Boloppion.
(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)