UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria's president on Monday to take swift action to end his regime's bloody crackdown and appealed to the divided U.N. Security Council to speak with one voice and help Syria "pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe."
The U.N. chief led off a ministerial debate in the council on challenges from the Arab Spring certain to be dominated by the yearlong conflict in Syria, which he said has led the entire region into uncertainty and subjected citizens in several cities to disproportionate violence.
On the sidelines of the council debate, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to hold bilateral talks.
Russia, which is Syria's most powerful ally, and China have vetoed two U.S. and European-backed Security Council resolutions which would have condemned President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown, saying they were unbalanced and demanded that only the government stop attacks, not the opposition. Moscow accused Western powers of fueling the conflict by backing the rebels.
Earlier this month, the United States proposed a new draft which tried to take a more balanced approach, but diplomats said Russia and China rejected it, saying it was still unbalanced.
As he headed into Monday's meetings, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he had three goals: ending the violence, getting access for humanitarian agencies, and a political transition.
"We try to convince Russia and China that it is a question of humanitarian solidarity to stand with the people in Syria ... (who) do nothing else but ask for freedom and human rights," he said. "I hope Russia and China no longer will be on the wrong side of history."
On the sidelines, the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators — the U.N., U.S., European Union and Russia — met behind closed doors on the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is witnessing the worst flare-up in violence in more than a year.
The ministerial meeting reviewed efforts to get the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table, but deep divisions remain and there is little hope of a breakthrough.
Ban told the council afterward that "the peace process continues to stagnate" and he appealed to the Palestinians and Israelis "to show the courage and vision needed to reach a historic agreement." He also demanding an end to Palestinian rocketing of southern Israel and urged Israel to exercise "maximum restraint" to prevent further escalation of the violence.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague chaired the meeting, and speakers will include Clinton, Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
Lavrov was flying to New York from Cairo, where he had a tense meeting with Arab League foreign ministers. They have endorsed a plan for Assad to hand power to his vice president, but the Russians are adamantly opposed to any resolution endorsing regime change.
In the end, the Arab League and Lavrov agreed on several points that could serve as the basis for a future Security Council resolution: an immediate cease-fire, a clause preventing foreign intervention, assurances about humanitarian aid and an endorsement of the mission of special envoy to Syria, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
Annan left Syria on Sunday without a deal to end the conflict, while regime forces mounted a new assault on rebel strongholds in the north.
The U.N. chief said he joined Annan "in urging President Assad to act swiftly, within the next few days in response to the proposals." (AP)