Diplomats hail Syria talks progress

Diplomats claimed considerable progress today towards overcoming Russian objections to a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at halting the violence in Syria.

Diplomats claimed considerable progress today towards overcoming Russian objections to a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at halting the violence in Syria.

But demands that President Bashar Assad step aside remained a major sticking point.

Following a closed-door meeting in New York, several diplomats said they were encouraged by a new constructive attitude in discussions and some held out the possibility of a vote by tomorrow.

“We are still looking for a vote this week,” British UN ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant said. “But there are a lot of difficult issues and we are not there yet.”

Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin also sounded upbeat, saying: “I think we have a much better understanding of what we need to do to reach consensus.”

Western diplomats insist the UN resolution be based on an Arab League peace plan calling for Assad to step down, allowing for the formation of a new government.

The plan also calls on Assad, who has been using police and the military to put down an uprising for the past 10 months, to end the violence.

US ambassador Susan Rice said the call for Assad to step aside remained “one of the more difficult issues”.

“There’s no certainty. These are tough issues,” she said, adding that a “constructive and roll-up-your-sleeves manner” during the session gave her hope for eventual agreement on a resolution being drafted by Morocco.

“We’re not talking weeks, but we’re not talking tomorrow,” she said.

Ambassadors from India, Germany and other countries said they expected Morocco, the resolution’s key sponsor, to prepare a new draft for discussion by council members today.

Russian officials have said they will oppose the resolution if it contains any hint of a military intervention or regime change in Syria, a major ally.

Mr Churkin told reporters before yesterday’s session that a change in the current language calling for Assad to step aside “would make it easier for us” to approve.

On Tuesday, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain and France joined Arab League officials in a top-level meeting at the UN urging council members to approve the resolution.

Mrs Clinton reiterated yesterday that it was important for the council to move quickly.

“Every member of the council has to make a decision, whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people ... or are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime?” she said.

Mrs Clinton has said she will discuss the resolution with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference in Germany this weekend.

London-based Amnesty International called on Russia to stop what it said was its “unconscionable” obstruction of UN efforts to help end the bloodshed in Syria. The UN said several weeks ago that at least 5,400 people have been killed in the 10-month-old government crackdown on a civilian uprising.

Russia and China used a double veto in October to block an earlier security council resolution condemning the violence in Syria.

“Russia’s threats to abort a binding UN Security Council resolution on Syria for the second time are utterly irresponsible,” Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s UN representative, said.

“Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked.”

Mr Diaz noted that Russia was the Syrian government’s largest overseas arms supplier and had reportedly continued arms shipments to the country in recent weeks.

Martin Nesirky, the spokesman for the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, said Mr Ban hoped the international community and the security council in particular, would respond to the violence in Syria with “a unified voice”.

“He’s concerned that as time passes more people are being killed,” Mr Nesirky said. “The need for action is because of the need to stop the killing.”

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