Fears of civil war in Syria after peace plan is vetoed

The West condemns Russia and China for blocking UN move to increase pressure on Assad to stand down

Western and Arab governments and opposition activists yesterday scrambled to forge a new plan to stem the bloodshed in Syria after Russia and China's veto of a UN resolution sparked outrage and warnings that the move could tip the country into civil war.

The veto on Saturday meant Moscow and Beijing would be "held responsible" for further violence in Syria, said the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, describing President Bashar al-Assad's government as a "murdering regime".

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said "a travesty" had occurred at the UN in New York, warning that chances for "a brutal civil war" would increase as Syrians under attack from their government move to defend themselves. With the United Nations now hobbled after failing to endorse the Arab League plan urging President Assad to cede power and to halt a crackdown reported to have killed thousands, Ms Clinton pressed for more action by "friends of a democratic Syria".

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future," she said. Ms Clinton's phrasing recalled the Friends of Libya group, which pushed for the military action that eventually helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in October.

But there is little appetite for similar armed intervention in Syria, leaving the West's options limited. There are already economic sanctions against President Assad's regime, and there are fears that funnelling arms directly to the Free Syrian Army, the opposition force made up mainly of army defectors, will only protract the conflict.

Some US officials have raised the prospect of escalating humanitarian and logistical assistance to the disparate Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country. This seems to be the preferred option for the opposition, with Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, yesterday calling on his Facebook page for "international moves to support the revolution through political and economic aid".

Mr Hague urged the Arab League to push on with its plan to pressure Mr Assad into a peaceful transition of power, with or without UN backing. "Will he [Assad] have been emboldened by the fact that Russia and China vetoed the resolution? Yes, I think so," he said.

Damascus indeed appeared defiant yesterday, with state-run media trumpeting the UN move as vindication of Mr Assad's own reform programme, which includes drafting a new constitution and holding parliamentary elections. The Tishreen newspaper said the government would continue its crackdown on "armed groups" and "foreign terrorists" until stability is restored.

On the ground, there was further fighting, with activists reporting at least 56 deaths. One person was killed by a sniper in Homs, where on Saturday up to 200 people were reported killed when regime troops allegedly attacked opposition neighbourhoods. The UN estimates that more than 5,400 have died since protests broke out 11 months ago.

All eyes are now on a scheduled trip to Syria tomorrow by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Russia had argued that the UN resolution advocated "regime change", while the Kremlin is keen to keep Syria – a key customer for its military hardware and host to a Russian naval base – on side. However, the delegation could have some success in convincing Mr Assad to make more concessions.