Big powers meet at UN on "weak" U.S. Syria draft

UNITED NATIONS Wed Mar 7, 2012 10:30am IST

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in the town of Hula near the city of Homs March 5, 2012. The placards read ''Hula salutes the Saudi stand with the Syrian revolution''. REUTERS/Handout

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in the town of Hula near the city of Homs March 5, 2012. The placards read ''Hula salutes the Saudi stand with the Syrian revolution''.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Morocco met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss a U.S.-drafted resolution urging an end to the Syrian government's crackdown on demonstrators, a text some Western envoys said was too weak.

It remains unclear whether the U.S. draft resolution, which follows two earlier proposed condemnations of Damascus that Russia and China vetoed, has any chance of success in the 15-nation council, which has been deadlocked over Syria's military operations against pro-democracy protesters for almost a year.

The U.S. draft, obtained by Reuters, demands "unhindered humanitarian access" and "condemns the continued widespread, systematic, and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities and demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to such violations."

It also would have the council demand Syria release "all persons detained arbitrarily" and withdraw the military.

U.N. ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, along with Morocco, the sole Arab state on the 15-nation Security Council, avoided detailed comments when they left a 1-1/2 hour meeting on the draft.

"We have just begun today preliminary discussions ... about whether there is any possibility of reaching agreement," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said in a statement to Reuters.

"These discussions are just beginning and will continue," she said. "If and when, it seems there is a basis for a meaningful and viable text, we will propose one to the full Security Council."

One diplomat said privately there would be "no swift vote" on the draft, if it came to a vote at all.

Another Western diplomat who defended the U.S. text said such a resolution could signal to Assad that his support from Moscow and Beijing is not unlimited: "We do think there is utility to having the Russians and Chinese sign up to something that indicates that they ... take issue with Syrian behavior."

Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri did not take part in the meeting but said the council should not take any steps until after it hears back from U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, both of whom are due to visit Syria in the coming days.

'VERY WEAK'

Several Western diplomats expressed disappointment with the U.S. draft, saying it fell far short of an appropriately stinging condemnation of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his nearly year-long clamp-down that the United Nations says has killed over 7,500 civilians.

"The text on the table is very weak," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The senior diplomat and several others, however, said that the Europeans and Arabs would support the draft, despite their misgivings, if it is put to a vote.

"If we're going to get a council resolution on Syria, this is the kind that could pass," a diplomat told Reuters. He added that the draft echoed a council statement on Syria that all 15 members, including Russia and China, supported last week.

"Of course, Russia and China may want veto it anyway," he said, adding that the U.S. delegation might prefer to withdraw the resolution if Moscow and Beijing planned to block it.

Syria's staunch ally Russia also criticized the text.

"The new U.S. draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria is a slightly renewed version of the previous vetoed document. It needs to be significantly balanced," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Monday on Twitter.

The draft resolution stops short of endorsing an Arab League plan that calls for Assad to transfer powers to his deputy to prepare free elections as European and Gulf Arab nations want.

Russia and China said the main reason they vetoed a council resolution backing the Arab plan last month was because it was an attempt to push Libya-style "regime change" in Syria.

A provision of the U.S. draft that has annoyed Saudi Arabia and others, diplomats said, is a call for "the armed elements of the Syrian opposition to refrain from all violence immediately" after the government ends its military operations.

Western and Arab diplomats do not want to equate the violence by the opposition with that of the much-stronger government security forces.

Some diplomats said Washington would like to have a final draft ready by Monday, when the Security Council will hold a ministerial debate on the "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria. Another diplomat said Monday was not a target date and success was far from certain.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe are among those who have confirmed that they will attend Monday's debate, which is aimed at taking stock of the pro-democracy uprisings that have toppled governments in countries including Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh and Christopher Wilson)

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