BEIRUT – A senior Russian diplomat Tuesday said a draft U.N. resolution demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside is a “path to civil war,” as Syrian troops besieged rebellious areas with hours of shelling and machine-gun fire.
The U.N. Security Council was set to meet later Tuesday to discuss the draft, backed by Western and some Arab powers. But Russia would likely veto any strong action against Damascus.
“The Western draft Security Council resolution on Syria does not lead to a search for compromise,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war.”
Russia has been one of Assad’s strongest backers as he tries to quell an uprising that began nearly 11 months ago. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria’s crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its opposition.
Russia fears the new measure could open the door to eventual military intervention, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya.
Some of the most intense violence Tuesday was in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, a centre of opposition to the regime. Local activist Mohammed Saleh said he heard hours of shelling and machine-gun fire, and thick black smoke was rising in the distance.
The smoke was believed to be from a pipeline that was struck, but details were not clear. Activists said regime forces’ fire hit the pipeline, but the accounts could not immediately be confirmed.
The U.N. estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, and the bloodshed spiked Monday as regime forces re-took control of the eastern suburbs of Damascus after rebel soldiers briefly captured them.
The death toll from Monday’s offensive was around 100 people, making it one among the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group.
Early Tuesday, government forces moved into the two remaining towns still in rebel hands.
“Intense shooting was heard in Zamalka and Arbeen as the tanks advanced,” the Observatory said, citing its network of sources on the ground. Regime forces made sweeping arrests in the nearby town of Rankous, activists said.
On a government-sponsored media trip, Syrian journalists heard at least seven explosions Tuesday from the eastern suburb of Rankous. It was not clear what caused the blasts.
The reporters were taken north of Damascus to see the Sednaya Convent, believed to have been build in A.D. 547. The site was damaged by artillery fire Sunday, in an attack the government blamed on “armed terrorists.” No casualties were reported.
“Providence has salvaged this holy site,” said Sister Verona, the head of the Sednaya Convent.
The bloodshed in Syria has increased in recent days as Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Russia over Security Council action.
The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice-president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.
If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider “further measures,” a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.
During a trip to Jordan on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Assad to stop the killings and he said he hopes Security Council members reach a consensus on Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers were heading to New York to push for backing of the measure.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” Clinton said, saying the Assad regime was preventing a peaceful transition and warning that the resulting instability could “spill over throughout the region.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described what is happening in Syria as a “scandal.”
Assad “has blood on his hands, so it’s not possible that he continues to assume responsibilities,” he told French radio Europe-1 Tuesday, shortly before flying to New York for the U.N. Security Council meeting.
Juppe ruled out military action, saying “things are very different from what happened in Libya. For example, in Syria you have communities that are divided and any exterior intervention could lead to a civil war.”
A French official said the draft U.N. resolution has a “comfortable majority” of support from 10 of the Security Council’s 15 members, meaning Russia or China would have to use the veto power to stop it. The official said Russia had agreed to negotiate on the draft.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.
Also Tuesday, army defectors gained full control of the central town of Rastan after days of intense clashes, according to a town activist who identified himself as Hassan. He refused to give his full name, fearing reprisal.
The town was taken by defectors twice in the past only to be retaken by Syrian troops. Rastan is the hometown of former Defence Minister Mustapha Tlass, who held the post for more than three decades, mostly under Assad’s father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad.
Because of the surge in violence, the Arab League has halted a month-old observer mission, which had already come under heavy criticism for failing to stop the crackdown. The League turned to the U.N. Security Council to throw its weight behind its peace plan, which Damascus has rejected.
AP writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.