The U.N. Security Council has been waiting for weeks to receive its marching orders from the Arab League on how it should respond to the violence in Syria.
On Sunday, the Arab League spoke, issuing a statement that reiterated its previous demands that the government of President Bashar al-Assad release all political prisoners, permit peaceful demonstrations, withdraw its heavy weapons from cities, and return to the barracks.
But the 15-nation council struggled to forge its own concerted response to the crisis.
Sunday's action differed from previous Arab League statements in that, for the first time, it outlined a political roadmap that would require Assad yield authority to a transitional government. The plan, which is similar to a transitional proposal for Yemen, would require Syrian government and opposition figures to begin an Arab League-brokered national dialogue within two weeks. The two sides would establish a national unity government within two months, headed by an agreed figure, to prepare for eventual free and fair elections. It remains unclear precisely whether Assad would play any role in the country's future.
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, sought to build on the agreement, which he described optimistically, as a "game changer," and reiterated his government's call for a briefing to the U.N. Security Council by the Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, and the Qatari chair of the Arab League committee dealing with the crisis. Qatar has been among the Arab League's sharpest critics of Syria.
The measure appears calculated to step up international pressure on Assad to halt the killing of civilians, and build political support in the council for a tough resolution condemning Syria's conduct. Germany and other European council members are also mulling the possibility of introducing a resolution that would endorse the Arab League proposal.
"We believe now more than ever that we need strong council action, a clear message to both the Syrian regime and the Syrian people," Wittig said at a briefing with U.N.-based reporters this morning. "Only real support and endorsement of the Arab League's decisions will do, everything else will be perceived as much too weak. But let me also say very clearly: We want Arab ownership in the solution of this Syrian crisis, but with strong support of the council."
Russia made it clear, however, it would not endorse the Arab League decision in whole.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said in an interview today that he welcomed a number of elements in the Arab League agreement, including a call for political negotiations between the government and the opposition within two weeks. Churkin said that while he hasn't yet received instructions from Moscow on how to respond, he was "seriously concerned" by the Arab League decision to outline the terms of the political transition.
"This is something which I think is not going to be acceptable by the Syrians," Churkin said in an interview at the Russian mission to the United Nations." I don't want to be rude of course, I want to be polite," he said. But "this is an effort by the Arab League, if I understand correctly, to put a pre-cooked solution on the table.... This is rather top-heavy when they say the president must resign."
Churkin also proposed that the Security Council expand the list of invitees to a potential Arab League briefing to the Security Council on Syria to include the head of the monitoring mission: Lt. General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Dabi, a controversial Sudanese military official who has been criticized for going too soft on the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced today that Russia signed a $550 million deal to sell Syria 36 new fighter jets.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.