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United Nations fails to unite on Syria violence

U.S. Ambassador to UN Susan Rice and China's Ambassador Li Baodong
Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks on a cell phone before talking with China's Ambassador Li Baodong, in this March 17, 2011, file photo at UN headquarters. Getty

The Obama administration's U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, called Wednesday on Syria's president to change course immediately. She said the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent violence by Bashar al-Assad's government against its own people.

"We also call upon the international community to respond to this brutal crackdown, and to hold accountable those who are perpetrating these gross human rights violations," Rice said.

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The White House is considering targeted sanctions against Syria and has underscored the point that it has evidence Iran is supporting the crackdown on peaceful protesters. President Obama condemned Syria for its "outrageous use of violence" and said the government's moves to lift the state of emergency and allow peaceful demonstrations "were not serious given the continued violent repression against protesters."

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But at the U.N. Security Council this week, in both closed-door consultations on Syria and in an open meeting that followed, the unanimity that the Council expressed on Libya two months ago, evaporated.

The council tried for three days to draft a collective press statement condemning Syria for the attacks against civilians. The statement was also to take note of the Assad government's lifting of the state of emergency, and the draft had been backed by the U.S., but a divided Security Council completed consultations on Syria Wednesday, without an agreement.

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Russia, China and Lebanon, who have criticized the U.S. and NATO-led air campaign in Libya, simply were not on board.

Frustrated by the lack of consensus for action on Syria, the U.N. Security Council met in open session on Wednesday, to at least vent. Several nations voiced their anger at the violence against protesters and civilians by the Assad regime.

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Britain's U.N. Ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant drew a comparison to other recent uprisings.

"This is a moment of hope for many people across the Middle East and North Africa. Their voices are being heard as never before. New democratic processes are underway in Egypt and Tunisia, reflecting a long pent-up desire for more open and representative government. Other governments across the region are responding positively to the demand for reform."

"In Syria," continued Grant, "the government has chosen a different path. What we have seen in recent weeks is a systematic attempt to stifle the legitimate demands of the Syrian people through violence and oppression."

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe, told Council members that the U.N. is requesting urgent access to the southern city of Daraa in order to assess the humanitarian needs on the ground. He told council members that the Syrian army is carrying out an operation in the city, firing at unarmed civilians, preventing medical personnel from helping the wounded, raiding mosques and arresting others.

"This continued repression in Syria is, as the President of the Republic has said, unacceptable," said France's U.N. Ambassador Gérard Araud. "This escalation, which includes resorting to heavy weapons such as tanks in Daraa, has led to the death of many peaceful demonstrators."

"In this tragic context, it was important that the council did not remain silent and sent a strong message to the Syrian authorities. It was precisely the purpose of holding this public session of the council," added Araud.

But then came the warnings.

Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin said that outside interference could lead to civil war, adding that security forces were also killed and the actions did not threaten international peace.

"A real threat could arise from outside interference or taking of sides," said Pankin.

And Syria's own Ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said the country's security forces had exercised restraint to avoid killing civilians, and warned that armed criminal elements -- supported by some foreign countries and extremist groups -- were responsible for the violence.

Unlike Qaddafi in Libya, the Obama administration has not called for Assad to go.

"The Syrian government must acknowledge its people's legitimate calls for substantial and lasting reform," said Rice. "Words must be backed by actions to ensure real reform in Syria."

Commenting on, a former State Department adviser on the Middle East said the Obama administration's policy on Syria was "at war with itself."

"The administration's realists and liberal interventionists are battling it out," said Aaron David Miller, who served both Republican and Democratic administrations.

He pointed to the different factions in the White House: "First, a cautious approach driven by Syria's importance -- the fear that Syria without Assad might be worse than Syria with him. The second current is shaped by growing violence in the streets and the seeming contradictions in not responding to Syrian repression as it did to Libya."

But, while the White House and the U.N. Security Council try to appeal to Assad, another storm is brewing. At the same time that Russia, China and Lebanon have blocked condemnations of Syria's crackdown on protestors, the U.N. General Assembly will vote (late in May) on Syria's application to become a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council -- a galling injustice in the minds of human rights activists who are calling for Assad to be for investigated for crimes against humanity.

On Friday, in advance of the vote for seats on the 47-nation Human Rights Council -- of which the U.S. is now a member -- a special session of the Geneva-based council was called by the U.S. with the backing of 15 other nations. The Obama Administration circulated a draft resolution to the Human Rights Council to condemn the violence against civilians and backing the Secretary-General's call for an investigation into the attacks on protestors. It is also reportedly seeking alternative candidates to be backed by the Asian block.

The Geneva-based human rights organization, U.N. Watch, put together a group it calls the "International Coalition to Prevent Syria's Election to the UNHRC," and called for International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo -- who will report to the U.N. Security Council next week on Libya -- to investigate Assad and his closest advisers for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Choosing Syria to be a global judge of human rights would be like appointing Bernard Madoff to defend victims of financial fraud," Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch posted on the group's Facebook page.

"For now, Syria is running unopposed in the Asian group and its election would make a mockery of the Human Rights Council," Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's United Nations Director, told CBS News. "It's not too late for the Asian group and the Arab league to withdraw their inexcusable endorsement of Syria's candidacy."

Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.