WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a high-wattage diplomatic push Tuesday to persuade the U.N. Security Council to endorse an Arab plan for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, but she couldn't break the steadfast objections of Russia and China.
As fighting between government and opposition forces continued on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, Clinton said that a failure by the Security Council to respond would mean being "complicit in the continuing violence," which was approaching a civil war.
Clinton, the foreign ministers of Britain and France, and Arab allies appeared at the United Nations to back a draft resolution that calls for Assad to resign within two months, a halt to the violence and beginning a process of political transition. The draft also calls for the release of detainees and for Syria to allow outside observers into the country, including journalists.
"The alternative — spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator — would compound this tragedy and would mark a failure of our shared responsibility and shake the credibility of the United Nations Security Council," Clinton said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The Obama administration and its allies are pushing for the Security Council to approve the resolution swiftly, and a vote is expected later in February. But they encountered stiff resistance from Russia — of whom Syria is an ally dating to the Soviet era — and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council.
Russia said it was against foreign countries participating in regime change, particularly with military force. It drew a comparison to the rebel uprising in Libya, which Russia voted in the Security Council last year to support, but which prompted a NATO military campaign that led to the eventual ouster of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Syria could resolve its own issues, and he signaled that Russia thinks Assad can survive the uprising. He suggested informal talks in Moscow between Assad's regime and his opponents, arguing that the Security Council "cannot impose the parameters of a settlement."
Syrian officials have prevented most international observers from obtaining a firsthand look at the conditions in the country, and while U.S. officials think that Assad won't last, they don't know how long he can hang on to power.
"I personally believe it's a question of time before Assad falls, but that's the issue," Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said Tuesday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the U.S. intelligence community's 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment.
However, Clapper added, "it could be a long time, given ... the protraction of these demonstrations."
According to U.N. estimates, at least 5,400 civilians have been killed since the uprising began nearly 11 months ago, most by government forces.
On Tuesday, Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, which backs the resolution, told the 15-member Security Council that at least 384 of those killed were children.
As the Security Council met, Syrian forces battled rebels just outside Damascus. According to unconfirmed reports trickling out from residents in the eastern district of the capital, some were allowed to flee their homes while troops loyal to the regime rounded up others, usually young men.
Syria's representative at the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, called the resolution an assault on his country's sovereignty.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invoked the Libyan example and told Australian news media that Russia would never vote for a similar resolution again. He suggested that Russia felt duped into voting for military intervention, not simply supporting the Libyan people.
"We are not an ally of President Assad,'' Lavrov was quoted as saying. "We never said President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis. What we did say is it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide how to run the country."
Given Russia's position, Western officials are hoping it will abstain from voting on the measure.
Clinton rejected comparisons to Libya, calling Syria a unique situation, and said a transition from Assad's rule could occur without "dismantling the state." Both the Qatari leader and Nabil al Arabi, the secretary-general of the Arab League, who made the case for the resolution, said they didn't want to see military intervention.
"Nothing in this resolution compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force," reads the draft, which Morocco introduced.
Western backers of the resolution stressed that they had no interest in shaping the outcome of Syria's government should Assad resign, saying that would be left to the Syrian people to decide. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, stressed that this was an Arab initiative, not a Western one.
But the question of who would replace Assad hovered over the three-and-a-half-hour debate. Violence plagues Libya amid a power vacuum left by Gadhafi's demise and squabbling among the rebel factions that overthrew him.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Middle East page.