UNITED NATIONS | Sat Feb 4, 2012 12:45pm EST
(Reuters) – Russia and China vetoed on Saturday an Arab- and Western-backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down over his bloody crackdown on a popular uprising.
The setback in diplomatic efforts to defuse the revolt peacefully came after world leaders and Syrian opposition activists accused Assad’s forces of killing hundreds of people in a bombardment of the city of Homs, the bloodiest night in 11 months of upheaval in the pivotal Arab country.
Shortly before the Security Council voted, President Barack Obama denounced the “unspeakable assault” on Homs, demanded that Assad leave power immediately and called for U.N. action against Assad’s “relentless brutality.”
“Yesterday the Syrian government murdered hundreds of Syrian citizens, including women and children, in Homs through shelling and other indiscriminate violence, and Syrian forces continue to prevent hundreds of injured civilians from seeking medical help,” Obama said in a statement. “Any government that brutalizes and massacres its people does not deserve to govern.”
He and other Western and Arab leaders put unprecedented pressure on Assad’s veto-wielding ally Russia to allow the Security Council to pass a resolution backing an Arab League call for Assad to transfer powers to a deputy.
Apart from Russia and China, the other 13 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, which would have said that the council “fully supports” the Arab League plan.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saturday it had not been possible to work constructively with Russia ahead of the vote, even though military intervention in Syria – fiercely opposed by Moscow – had been absolutely ruled out.
“I thought that there might be some ways to bridge, even at this last moment, a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible,” she told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.
After what U.S. officials called “vigorous” talks between Clinton and Lavrov, Moscow announced that its foreign minister would fly to Syria in three days to meet Assad.
Mohammed Loulichki, the U.N. ambassador of Morocco, the sole Arab member of the 15-nation council, voiced his “great regret and disappointment” that Moscow and Beijing joined forces to strike down the resolution.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud told the council, “It is a sad day for this council, a sad day for all Syrians, and a sad day for democracy.”
Diplomats said that China had been expected to follow Russia’s lead. Russia’s decision to vote against the resolution came after U.S. and European officials rejected a series of Russian amendments to the draft resolution.
Moscow said before the vote that the resolution was not “hopeless,” but its wording needed to be altered to avoid “taking sides in a civil war.” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was still possible to reach consensus.
But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said amendments that Russia had proposed were “unacceptable.”
France called the Homs assault a “massacre” and a “crime against humanity.” Turkey said hundreds had been killed and the United Nations must act. Tunisia expelled the Syrian ambassador, and the flag above its embassy was brought down.