The US said it was “disgusted” with Russia and China after they vetoed on Saturday a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria only hours after the Syrian military attacked the city of Homs in what appeared to be the bloodiest incident yet in the eleven month-long uprising.
A week of intense negotiations at the UN in New York ended in diplomatic rancour on Saturday when the Security Council voted 13-2 in favour of the Arab and western-backed resolution calling for president Bashar al-Assad to transfer power.
Russia, which has been the closest ally of the Syrian regime throughout the process, and China both vetoed the resolution, saying that it interfered with Syrian sovereignty.
At a security conference in Munich on Sunday, Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, described the rare double veto as a “license to kill” for the Assad regime. The Yemeni Nobel laureate, Tawakul Karman, said expelling Syrian ambassadors was “the minimum” governments could do in response to the violence.
Tunisia’s prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, concurred, calling on all Arab countries to send Syrian envoys back to Damascus. “The Syrian people aren’t expecting statements, they’re expecting concrete actions,” he said. On Saturday, Tunisia’s president announced that the country had started the process of withdrawing its recognition of the Assad regime, including expelling its ambassador.
The vote was called in New York as diplomats were inundated with dramatic reports of the violence in the city of Homs, which the Assad government denied, but which the Obama administration said involved the “murder of hundreds of Syrian citizens”.
President Barack Obama released a statement condemning the “unspeakable assault” in Homs and saying that Mr Assad “has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community”.
The decision to veto the UN resolution was also sharply attacked by western governments. William Hague, UK foreign secretary, said: “Russia and China faced a simple choice today: would they support the people of Syria and the Arab League or not? They decided not to, and instead sided with the Syrian regime and its brutal suppression of the Syrian people in support of their own national interests.”
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, said those who opposed the resolution would be “complicit in the continuing violence and bloodshed” in Syria.
Speaking after last-minute talks in Munich with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, Mrs Clinton said that if a process of peacemaking was not started, it was impossible to predict the future.
“In the absence of the international community working together” to back the Arab League peace plan, there was “a great likelihood that Syria will descend into a civil war,” she said. “That is the outcome that every one of us must work to avoid.”
Mrs Clinton said 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 ruled out.
Speaking before the vote in New York, Mr Lavrov said that the resolution was flawed because it called for measures against the Assad regime, but did not criticise the opposition. “Unless you do it both ways, you are taking sides in a civil war,” he told a security conference in Munich.
He said it was unreasonable to ask the Syrian authorities to withdraw their troops to barracks, if there were not a comparable insistence on abandonment of force by armed groups opposing the government.
“We try to stick to our responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council – maintaining international peace and security,” Mr Lavrov said.
Beijing issued a statement on Sunday calling for all parties in Syria to end violence, adding that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria must be “fully respected”.
The UN resolution said that the Security Council “fully supports” an Arab League plan for Mr Assad to hand over power to his vice-president and for a government of national unity to be formed. In negotiations with Russia during the week, the resolution was amended to take out mentions of possible sanctions and a ban on arms sales to the Syrian regime.
Despite Russian calls for more amendments, Arab and western diplomats said on Saturday that there would be no more compromises, effectively daring the Russians to exercise the veto that comes with being a permanent member of the Security Council.
Syrian activists from the Local Coordination Committees said that at least 61 people had been killed in an overnight bombardment of the rebellious central city of Homs. Other groups claimed that more than 200 had been killed, which would make it the bloodiest single incident in the Syrian uprising.
Alain Juppé, France’s foreign minister, said: “The massacre in Homs is a crime against humanity and those responsible will have to answer for it.”
Separately, Mr Obama said in an interview with US broadcaster NBC that he does not think Israel has decided whether to take military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. “We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this – hopefully diplomatically,” he said.
Mr Obama said that he thinks tighter international sanctions are hurting the Iranian regime. “They are feeling the pinch,” he said.
Additional reporting by Leslie Hook in Beijing, Robin Harding in Washington and agencies.
Get alerts on Syrian crisis when a new story is published