Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Tuesday that Syria risks becoming engulfed in a civil war as its people take up arms to oppose a violent crackdown on a 10-month-old uprising.
Mrs. Clinton spoke at the U.N. Security Council, where top Western and Arab officials converged in an effort to persuade Russia not to veto a resolution that calls on Syrian President Bashar Assad to transfer power to his deputy and pave the way for a unity government.
As more citizens take up arms to “resist the regime’s brutality, violence is increasingly likely to spiral out of control,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Assad and his cronies are working hard to pit Syria’s ethnic and religious groups against each other, risking a descent into civil war.”
The United Nations has stopped providing estimates of the death toll, citing confusion in Syria. Its last estimate, earlier this month, said more than 5,400 people had been killed.
A long-time ally of the Syrian regime, Russia opposes the resolution in the Security Council, saying it opens the door to foreign military intervention in the Middle Eastern nation.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, did not signal any shift in his country’s opposition.
He described the situation in Syria as an “extreme internal political crisis” and said the role of the international community should “not be one of exacerbating conflict, nor meddling by the use of economic sanctions or military force.”
Besides Russia, China, India and South Africa also oppose military intervention in Syria.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov warned in a message posted on his Twitter account that the resolution would put Syria on the “path to civil war.”
Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that the proposal is not perfect, but said it deserves a chance.
“This may not be the exact plan we ourselves would have designed. … But it represents the best efforts of Syria’s neighbors to chart a way forward,” she said. “Success is far from guaranteed. But the alternative - more of Assad’s brutal rule - is no alternative at all.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned the Security Council to end its “scandalous silence” on Syria.
British Foreign Minister William Hague asked: “How many people need to die before the consciences of world capitals are stirred?”
But Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, accused Western powers and the Arab League of interfering in his country: “One can’t be an arsonist and a firefighter at the same time.”
Russia, one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, is reluctant to topple Mr. Assad in part to protect its huge military contracts with the regime.
In a bid to allay Russian concerns, Nabil al-Araby, secretary-general of the Arab League, said the resolution has no intention of seeking military intervention in Syria.
Mrs. Clinton described Syria as a unique situation and said comparing it with Libya is a “false analogy.”
A Security Council resolution against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya last year paved the way for setting up a no-fly zone. The mission was dogged by accusations from critics, including Moscow, that it’s real goal was regime change.
Meanwhile in the Syrian capital, Damascus, residents anticipated a crackdown as the regime’s forces erected concrete barriers and sealed off all roads leading to the presidential palace.
The Assad regime’s forces continued the lethal crackdown in the cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib and in the suburbs of Damascus.
In a phone interview from Paris, Haytham Manna, a Syrian opposition leader, said he would leave Wednesday for a trip to China and Russia in an effort to secure their support against Mr. Assad.
Mr. Manna leads the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a major Syrian opposition group. The group[‘]s delegation will try to assure the governments in Moscow and Beijing that their interests will be protected after the regime falls.
He said Russia is crucial to persuading Mr. Assad to stop the violence in Syria.
“The Russian Federation and the Arab League must find a compromise, because only Russia today can persuade the Syrian regime to accept any solution,” he said.
His group, unlike the Syrian National Council, rejects foreign military intervention in the country.
Rupert Colville, a Geneva-based spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a phone interview that the violence has escalated over the past few days.
“The situation has taken on a considerably different tone from the early months, when it was unarmed protesters taking on government forces,” he said.
On Saturday, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria, citing the escalation in violence.
The Assad regime blames terrorists for the violence.
“Our best hope to walk Syria away from an imminent civil war is to implement the Arab League plan,” said Khaldoon Alaswad, a member of the NCB’s executive committee.