France is throwing its diplomatic weight behind the Arab League’s Syria peace plan, despite a UN Security Council resolution to back the process being vetoed by Russia and China.

As Arab states and Turkey joined western governments in expressing outrage at the veto, French officials said on Sunday that intensive contacts would get under way shortly on a proposal to create an international group on Syria. The group would be aimed at sustaining pressure on the regime in Damascus and maintaining momentum behind the Arab League’s proposals for an end to the crisis.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would work with its European and Arab partners to create what he called a “group of friends of the Syrian people” to apply international backing to the Arab League’s call for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the withdrawal of troops and a transition to democracy.

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 Mr 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.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, and Mikhail Fradkov, head of the foreign intelligence service are to meet president Assad on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, yesterday in the UN, the Cold war logic continues,” Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told a security conference in Munich. “Russia and China did not vote based on the existing realities but more a reflexive attitude against the west.”

Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League’s secretary-general, said Arab states would not stop their efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis even though their bid to secure UN backing had been blocked. The Russian and Chinese veto “does not negate that there is clear international support for the resolutions of the Arab League … that called for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside so talks with the opposition could start,” Mr Elaraby said.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, described Saturday’s veto as a travesty. “Those countries that refused to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibility for protecting the brutal machine in Damascus,” she said.

“Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the UN with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”

Russia refused to take the blame for the failed resolution, calling the draft “unbalanced” in its demand for Mr Assad to step down but not making any demands on the opposition.

“The resolution draft did not take into account a requirement promoted by the Russian side for the Syrian opposition to distance themselves from extremist elements, who have chosen the path of violence,” the Russians foreign ministry said.

French officials said the scope of the contact group had yet to be fixed and it was too early to say when a meeting might be set up. But its main purpose would be to promote the Arab League initiative and to send a clear message to the Syrian opposition that they retained international support despite the failure of the Security Council resolution. “We absolutely have to help the Syrian people,” said one.

The officials likened it to an international contact group set up last year during the rebellion in Libya – although there is no suggestion that France is contemplating advocating military intervention in Syria. However, Paris mooted the idea last November of setting up humanitarian corridors in Syria, linked to the Turkish and Lebanese borders or to the coast, through which food and medical supplies could be channelled to civilians. Officials said this idea could be “on the table” for a contact group.

They added that representatives of Syrian opposition factions could be involved in the group – but work was going on in parallel to press the opposition to unify and work our a common platform.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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