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Jan 31, 2012 3:32 PM by AP

High-level offensive launched on Syria at UN

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Western and Arab nations launched a major diplomatic offensive at the U.N. on Tuesday in hopes of overcoming Russia's opposition to a resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad relinquish power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers traveled to New York for the afternoon Security Council session on the situation in Syria. Nabil Elaraby, the chief of the Arab League, and Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, Qatar's prime minister, also were to brief council members.

"Realizing the hopes of the Syrian people is in your hands," Sheikh Hamad told council members, asking them to adopt the resolution, based on the Arab League's peace plan for the country. "It is part of your responsibility under the (U.N.) charter."

It was unclear if the high-level push would succeed.

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, has objected to the draft, which is backed by Western and some Arab powers. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Tuesday on Twitter that the resolution is a "path to civil war."

Russia says it worries that the new measure could lead to military action and regime change, just as an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya that allowed rebels to oust the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

Backers of the draft point out that it says specifically that "nothing ... compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force."

An actual vote on the resolution was considered unlikely until later this week.

The debate came amid rising violence Tuesday in Homs, a Syrian center of opposition to Assad's regime. The U.N. estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed since last March in the Syrian government crackdown against protesters.

The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab League peace plan calling for him to hand over power to his vice president. If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider "further measures," a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, that he was "encouraged by the League of Arab States' initiative to seek a political solution" to the Syrian crisis.

"It is more urgent than ever to put an end to this bloodshed and violence, to start a credible political solution that addresses the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people and to protect their fundamental freedoms," Ban said.

If Russia choses to use its veto, there isn't much more council members can do except draft a nonbinding statement that would have to be approved by consensus.

In October, a Western-backed resolution condemning the violence in Syria was blocked by a double veto of Russia and fellow permanent member China.

Syria has been Moscow's top ally in the Middle East since Soviet times, when it was led by the incumbent's father, Hafez Assad. The Kremlin saw it as a bulwark for countering U.S. influence in the region.

While Russia's relations with Israel have improved greatly since the Soviet collapse, ties with Damascus helped Russia retain its clout as a member of the Quartet of international mediators trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

For decades, Syria has been a major customer for Russian arms, buying billions of dollars worth of combat jets, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group U.N. Watch, said it was time for Russia to end "its increasingly futile effort to shield the doomed Assad regime.

"Russia would do better to prepare the dictator's Moscow asylum, something he will need sooner rather than later," Neuer said.

German Ambassador Peter Wittig told Al-Jazeera Arabic Monday that he understood that "Russia is in a difficult position" but said the council needed to act.

The German mission to the United Nations provided a text of Wittig's comments to reporters.

"I believe we are at a fork in the road," said the text. "Either the council contributes to stop the violence, to start a meaningful political process or Syria might slight into a full scale civil war."

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