After months of inaction, the U.N. Security Council issued its first formal condemnation of Syria for its use of force against protesters that has resulted in the deaths of as many as 2,000 civilians this year.
The council statement came as Syria stepped up its military campaign in what appeared to be a final move to crush the protest movement in the town of Hama. It calls for "an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."
The statement also calls on Syria to cooperate with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is seeking to investigate abuses in Syria, and to permit "expeditious and unhindered access for international humanitarian agencies and workers."
After the vote, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that the statement sent a powerful message that the international community is united in its condemnation of Syria. She said that she hoped the Syrian government is "chastened by the strength and unity of the condemnation" and that it would allow "the people of Syria to chart their course and have a democratic future."
The Security Council has failed for months to reach agreement on a response to the violence in Syria. The council's European members -- Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal -- backed by the United States, have led diplomatic efforts to adopt a legally binding resolution condemning the violence in Syria and compelling the government to stop it.
But Western governments have faced stiff resistance from other council members, including China, Russia, Lebanon, Brazil, India, and South Africa. Diplomats from those countries have cited concern that a resolution would be used as a pretext to impose sanctions or military force on Syria in the future.
In a press briefing Tuesday, India's U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, suggested that many council diplomats believe that the Western military coalition operating in Libya has exceeded its Security Council mandate to protect civilians there and has effectively sided with one party in a civil war.
Rice dismissed such reasoning as a "canard" deployed to avoid discussing how best to confront Syria.
In the end, the council reached agreement on a presidential statement, which carries less political and legal weight than a resolution, but which still marks a setback for Syria.
To secure the deal, the council's Western members were required to include a provision, requested by Brazil, expressing concern about violent reprisals against the Syrian government and attacks against Syrian institutions. While Lebanon, which is run by a pro-Syrian government, agreed not to block agreement on the statement, it issued a statement distancing itself from the council's decision.
The Security Council statement stopped short of including a request by European governments to launch an international investigation into serious crimes by the Syrian authorities. But it scolded Damascus for failing to meet its commitment to institute political reforms.
"The only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population," the statement says.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.