Showdown on Syria, Assad's future, likely in U.N.

A coalition of Arab nations and their Western allies, including the United States, are expected to face off Tuesday with Russia about a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that could call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power

REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- A coalition of Arab nations and their Western allies, including the United States, are expected to face off Tuesday with Russia over a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution that could call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.

The outcome may help determine the future of Syria after a bloody 10-month rebellion that has cost more than 5,000 lives, according to U.N. figures, and raised the prospect of a revamped geopolitical alignment in the Middle East.

A big three of Western leadership -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe -- are scheduled to travel to New York to throw their collective weight behind an Arab League plan before the United Nations. That blueprint calls for Assad to transfer power to a deputy while a transitional government is formed and elections are scheduled.

Syria has condemned the plan as an assault on its sovereignty and a foreign-hatched "conspiracy" against the leadership of Assad, whose family has ruled the strategically situated Middle Eastern nation for more than 40 years.

But the Obama administration and its allies in the Arab world and the West argue that Assad's bloody crackdown against protests has eroded his credibility to the point where he must go. The Syrian government says it is fighting "terrorists" armed from abroad.

"The regime has lost control of the country and will eventually fall," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday of the Assad government.

Not so fast, says the West's former Cold War adversary, Russia.

Moscow has sought to spur peace talks concerning Syria and vowed to veto any measure calling for regime change or other punitive steps, such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo. Russian diplomats seem determined to ensure that Moscow's perceived interests are not flouted in the case of Syria, an Arab ally going back to Soviet days, an avid client for Russian arms and the host of a warm-water Mediterranean port used by the Russian fleet.

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov labeled a draft Security Council resolution "not balanced" and said it "leaves open the possibility of intervention in Syrian affairs."

But Russia does not insist on Assad retaining his presidency as a condition for a settlement, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed in comments to the media on Tuesday in Sydney, Australia.

"The decision has to be Syrian," Lavrov said. "Russian policy is not aimed at asking somebody to step down. Replacing regimes is not our job."

Diplomats from Russia, China and some other nations want to avoid a repeat of last year's Libya scenario. In that case, a U.N. resolution designed to protect civilians in the North African nation opened the door to a punishing, Western-led bombing campaign that doomed the regime of Moammar Kadafi.

Last fall, a wary Russia and China blocked a draft Security Council resolution that would have assailed the Assad government's crackdown on dissent. The two permanent members of the council -- status that gives each veto power -- feared what they viewed as potentially another back-door effort to oust an Arab leader unpopular in the West.

At issue Tuesday will be whether the current debate will result in a new veto -- or a compromise resolution acceptable to Russia.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: An image taken from a video uploaded on YouTube on Tuesday reportedly shows an oil pipeline burning in Syrian city of Homs. According to the Syrian opposition Local Coordination Committees, the pipeline was blown up by security forces. Credit: Agence France-Presse / YouTube

 
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