World powers set for Syria clash at UN

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The world powers are on course for a new diplomatic clash over Syria when foreign ministers from the main UN Security Council nations meet on Monday.

What was intended by the British organizers of the event to be a review of the Arab Spring uprisings will be overshadowed by the divide over how to stop President Bashar al-Assad’s deadly assault on opponents.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia, William Hague of Britain, Alain Juppe of France and Guido Westerwelle of Germany will be among top officials at the event.

The council’s failure to agree a resolution condemning the Syria violence, the worsening toll in Syria — well over 7,500 according to the UN — and Assad’s refusal to allow humanitarian groups into the protest cities have all cast a dark cloud over preparations for Monday’s meeting.

“Assad is determined not to give in and the divide is growing between Russia and the Western countries,” said one senior envoy from a Security Council member.

“Kofi Annan’s meeting in Damascus seems to have gone nowhere. It is difficult to see anything but new friction at this meeting,” the envoy added, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Russia and China have twice used their powers as permanent members of the Security Council to veto resolutions condemning the Syria violence. Talks on a new US-led attempt to agree a resolution have hit a dead end, though Clinton and Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of the UN meeting.

Russia and China say the Western nations only want a resolution to back regime change. Lavrov said Russia opposes “crude interference” in Syria’s internal affairs, his ministry said after a meeting between Lavrov and UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan in Cairo.

Russia wants any resolution to call equally on the government and opposition groups to halt the violence. The Western members say the security force assault and attacks by opposition groups cannot be put on the same level.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will brief Monday’s meeting, has bluntly accused Assad forces of using “disproportionate” force against what started out as peaceful demonstrators.

But Lavrov insists he is defending “international law”, while the United States and European members of the council say Russia is only blocking international action to prop up its main Middle East ally.

Russia, the second biggest arms supplier to Assad’s government, faces growing criticism from some Arab countries.

China has meanwhile proposed its own plan for talks between Assad and the opposition, which an envoy will press in the Arab world and Europe this week.

The envoy, Zhang Ming, will be in Paris on Wednesday after talks in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but faces a difficult time.

“We’ll listen to him but then we’ll remind him, if it’s still necessary, of our view of the situation and the importance of China changing its position in the Security Council,” French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

There are worries that the diplomatic tensions on the 15-nation Security Council could spread.

“Already nothing is happening on Syria, but the risk now is that this diplomatic dispute could spill over into other areas such as Iran and the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” the Security Council envoy told AFP.

The foreign ministers of Portugal, Guatemala and Morocco are also expected at the Security Council meeting, organized by Britain as president of the Security Council for March. Business will start with the adoption of a resolution on the UN mission in Libya.

Clinton, Lavrov, Ban and EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton will hold a meeting of the diplomatic Quartet on the Israel-Palestinian conflict before the Security Council battle starts.

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