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Can the Arabs convince Russia not to block Syrian condemnation?

The Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership in the group and to threaten possible sanctions against one of its own has not only altered the political landscape in the Middle East.

It has shaken up the Security Council and placed Syria's most important ally, Russia, under increasing pressure to reconsider its implacable opposition to pressure in the U.N. Security Council.

Early last month, a European resolution condemning Syria for a bloody crackdown on protesters that has led to the killing of more than 3,500 people was quickly quashed.

China and Russia vetoed the resolution, citing concern that the West was using the Security Council to press for regime change in Syria.

Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon also abstained, expressing bitterness over the West's use of a resolution mandating the use of force to protect civilians to topple the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi.

But it's one thing to stand up to the world's big Western power, whose periodic resort to the use of military force to solve problems is resented by the broader U.N. membership, and quite another to go up against a regional political group like the Arab League.

The Arab League took the unusual step of suspending Syria from the organization over the weekend as punishment for its repression of anti-government protesters, and said that it would take the matter up with the United Nations if Syria fails to restrain its security forces. Political and economic sanctions, the League threatened, could be imposed.

China -- which has traditionally been reluctant to clash with regional groups -- called on Syria to take heed of the Arab's League statement.

"What is pressing now is to implement the Arab League's initiative appropriately and earnestly," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, according to AFP. "China once again urges the Syrian government and all relevant parties to cease violence, launch an inclusive and balanced political process and make unremitting efforts to realize the Arab League's initiative."

The chief obstacle to a Security Council condemnation of Syria is Russia, which maintains close military ties with Bashar al-Assad's government. Indeed, Russia still maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today sharply criticized the Arab League decision, and blamed the West for seeking to incite government opposition groups to press for the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad.

"We believe it is wrong to suspend Syria's membership of the Arab League," Reuters quoted Lavrov telling the state-run RIA news agency while en route to the Pacific Rim Summit in Hawaii. "Those who made this decision have lost a very important opportunity to shift the situation into a more transparent channel."

"There continues to be incitement of radical opponents [of Assad's government] to take a firm course for regime change and rejected any invitations to dialogue," Interfax news agency reported Lavrov saying, according to Reuters.

Until now, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin has insisted that Moscow is not "siding with the Assad regime" but that it fears the confrontational approach being pursued by the United States and its European partners will drive the country into civil war.

"To claim ... that our veto was against the Arab Spring -- well, that's a cute phrase -- but not a very serious one because ... we do not see the Arab Spring as something that should lead to civil war and this is in our view where this is going," Churkin said last month.

U.S. and Europeans diplomats have dismissed Russia's claim that they intend to use the Security Council to pursue the overthrow of the Assad regime. They say that no one is calling for a resolution that would authorize the use of force against Damascus.

But they believe that the Arab League's tough stance now raises new prospects of passing a resolution that would condemn Syria and possibly impose sanctions on the regime if it fails to halt its crackdown.

A Western diplomat whose government supported the U.N. resolution condemning Syria] said that Arab League action "exceeded" anyone's expectation but that it was not very clear on specifics.

"It's not quite clear what they meant yet," the diplomat said.

European members of the Security Council are awaiting a second meeting by the Arab League on Wednesday in hopes that it will provide a clear call for action by the U.N. Security Council.

The Arab League, diplomats said, must take the lead in the council if it is to have any chance of overcoming Russian opposition.

"This has to come from the Arabs," said a Western diplomat. "The last thing we want to do is to contaminate this with Western hands."

"But the Arabs will have to be nimble," the official added, "This must be making the Russians feel uncomfortable, but they are pretty thick skinned and un-embarrassable."

Another potential obstacle is that the Security Council's lone Arab government, Lebanon, includes a faction in the government, Hezbollah, that is a close political and military ally of Syria. And Damascus wields enormous influence in Beirut, making it highly unlikely that Lebanon will press a tough line in the council.

But Lebanon loses its seat on the Security Council on Dec. 31, to be replaced by Morocco, a North African government which maintains close ties with France and the United States. While diplomats believe Morocco will be far more amenable to a tougher approach, they are keen to begin pressing sooner for action, possibly later this week. "Nobody is in the mood for waiting around for the Moroccans to get here."

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