BEIRUT – With Arab pressure mounting to end 10 months of bloodshed, the Syrian regime vowed Tuesday to solve its own problems even if “half the universe” is conspiring against it.
The remarks signalled that Arab League efforts to stem the violence are collapsing — something that could pave the way for the U.N. Security Council to step in, even though Russia is firmly opposed to punitive measures against its longtime ally.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem brushed off the threat of referring the issue to the Security Council — a move that could lead to tougher sanctions — rather than trying to resolve it regionally. The prospect of U.N. involvement has raised fears in Syria that an international intervention could be next.
“If they go to (U.N. headquarters in) New York or the moon, as long as we don’t pay their tickets, this is their business,” al-Moallem said at a news conference in Damascus.
He was reacting to an appeal by the Gulf Cooperation Council for the U.N. Security Council to take all “necessary measures” to force Syria to implement an Arab League’s ambitious peace plan announced Sunday to create a national unity government in two months. Damascus has rejected the plan as a violation of national sovereignty.
“The decision was made after careful and thorough monitoring of events in Syria and the conviction by the GCC that the bloodshed and the killing of innocent people there is continuing,” the statement by the six-nation GCC said.
It also announced its six member nations — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — were withdrawing the 52 monitors they had contributed to an Arab League observer mission that has been heavily criticized for failing to stop the crackdown since it entered the country in late December. That would leave only about 110 observers on the ground, League officials said, a major blow to an effort that many see as the only hope for a regional solution to the crisis.
Several members of the 15-member council agreed Tuesday that it was time for the full group to take action.
“This council should fully support the Arab League’s efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed and a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said during the council’s monthly debate on the Middle East.
British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant expressed concern about weapons proliferation via sales to the Syrian government or illegal smuggling to the regime or opposition.
But the potential for U.N. involvement is a highly charged issue. Any resolution would have to get past veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which already rejected one Western-backed draft that threatened an arms embargo. The two countries argued that NATO misused a previous U.N. mandate authorizing use of force in Libya.
The U.N. estimates more than 5,400 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising began in March, inspired by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. The conflict has turned more violent in recent months, as army defectors and some protesters take up arms to fight the regime’s forces.
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Violence continued Tuesday, with an overall death toll that ranged from 15 to more than 43, based on reports from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Local Coordination Committees and other activists on the ground.
Syria’s powerful allies in Russia, China and Iran have shielded Damascus in some ways from a slew of condemnation and sanctions by the U.S., the European Union, Turkey and others.
Russia reportedly has signed a contract to sell combat jets to Syria, according to a Monday report in the business daily Kommersant. The $550-million deal is for 36 Yak-130 aircraft, according to an unidentified source close to Russia’s Rosoboronexport state arms trader.
Asked about the report, Russian Middle East envoy and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said he was not up to date on the issue but insisted that Russia is not violating any international conventions.
“There are no kinds of international sanctions on this count. When sanctions were taken regarding Libya, we fully observed them,” he said, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times, when the country was led by the president’s father, Hafez Assad. It has supplied Syria with aircraft, missiles, tanks and other modern weapons.
“No one can doubt the strength of Syria’s relationship with Russia,” al-Moallem said Tuesday, confident that Moscow will use its veto power at the Security Council to protect Damascus. “International intervention in Syria is a red line for Russia.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday the U.S. respected the Gulf countries’ decision to pull out of the Arab League monitoring mission, noting it would leave a “big hole in the operation,” since the GCC provided the bulk of financial support as well.
Later Tuesday, the state-run news agency SANA said al-Moallem sent a letter to Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby saying Damascus agreed to allow the mission to be extended for one month, until Feb. 23.
Al-Moallem also signalled the crackdown will continue, saying the government must deal firmly with armed groups.
Syria has consistently blamed armed gangs carrying out a foreign conspiracy for the revolt, not protesters seeking change in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East.
“It is the duty of the Syrian government to take what it sees as necessary measures to deal with those armed groups that spread chaos,” al-Moallem said. “The security solution is a popular demand by the Syrian people who want salvation.”
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Anita Snow at the United Nations and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.