By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States and its European allies clashed with Russia at the U.N. Security Council on Monday over how to end escalating violence in Syria that has killed thousands of civilians and brought the country to the brink of civil war.
For over half a year Russia, supported by China, has vigorously opposed action against Damascus by the 15-nation council. The two veto powers have vowed to prevent Washington, Paris and London from pursuing Libya-style regime change in Syria, a strong ally of Moscow and home to the Russian navy's only warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
There were no signs after Monday's special council meeting on the "Arab Spring" uprisings that the five permanent Security Council members were any closer to breaking an impasse that has twice led Russia and China to veto draft resolutions condemning Syria and calling for an end to the violence there.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after meeting privately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that it was time for Moscow and Beijing to join the Arab League and the rest of the Security Council in supporting calls for an end to the Syrian government's bloody crackdown on protesters.
"We expect all nations, including Russia and China, to join us now in pressing the Assad regime to silence its guns to allow humanitarian aid to enter and to make way for a real political transition that protects the rights of all Syrians," she said.
But Clinton and Lavrov clearly had different ideas about how to achieve an end to the violence. Moscow has repeatedly rejected an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside.
Clinton said it was up to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose army has led a year-long crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators that the United Nations says has killed well over 7,500 civilians, to take the initial step.
"First and foremost the Assad government has to end the violence," she said.
"Once the Syrian government has acted, then we would expect others as well to end the violence," she said. "But there cannot be an expectation for defenseless citizens in the face of artillery assaults to end their capacity to defend themselves before there's a commitment by the Assad regime to do so."
RUSSIA WANTS "END OF VIOLENCE"
Lavrov reiterated Moscow's complaints about NATO operations in Libya, where he said the alliance had "grossly violated" its mandate to protect civilians last year after rebels rose up against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed by opposition forces.
"There is no doubt whatsoever that the Syrian authorities bear a huge responsibility for the current situation," he said.
But, Lavrov added, there was no point in talking about who started the violence. He said the Security Council should press for an "immediate end of violence" by all sides.
Russia, he said, could accept a resolution in line with its March 10 agreement with the Arab League, which urged an end to the violence, impartial monitoring, no outside interference, humanitarian access for all Syrians and support for the U.N.-Arab League push for talks between the government and the opposition.
Washington and Paris have suggested that a third Security Council resolution urging an end to the violence in Syria and access for aid workers - this time penned by the United States - may not be adopted due to opposition from Russia and China.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Assad to act within the next few days on peace proposals by the U.N.-Arab League envoy on the Syria crisis, Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan.
He also urged all council members "to unite strongly behind ending the violence and supporting Mr. Annan's mission to help Syria pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe."
Washington's allies in Europe also urged Russia and China to stop preventing the Security Council from acting on Syria.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe urged Russia and China to change their position on Syria, saying "the silence of the Security Council is scandalous."
He also dismissed the idea that France or any other council member was considering arming Syria's rebels, an idea that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly voiced support for. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was presiding over the council meeting, also said the council had failed the Syrian people.
Ban also stepped up his recent criticism of Assad, whose government has "subjected its citizens in several cities to military assault and disproportionate use of force."
"These shameful operations continue," Ban said.
Clinton assailed Assad for launching new attacks while discussing Annan's peace proposals in Damascus at the weekend.
"How cynical that, even as Assad was receiving former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Syrian Army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan," she said.
Assad said after meeting Annan on Saturday that dialogue with the opposition would not be successful while "armed terrorist groups" continued to spread instability.
Clinton also took a shot at Russia and China over their demands that fellow council members balance any condemnation of the Syrian government's actions with rebukes of the opposition, a position the Western powers have refused to accept.
"We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government's military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense," Clinton said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Eric Beech)