BEIJING (Reuters) - Western countries are stirring up a civil war in Syria with their wholehearted support for the opposition, a top Chinese newspaper said Monday, slamming calls for the country's leader to hand over power as an incitement to further violence.
China and Russia angered Western and Arab states this month by blocking a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit amid his government's violent crackdown on opposition protests.
Stung by the criticism, China has since sent envoys to the region to seek a diplomatic solution, including Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, who met Assad in Damascus Saturday and backed his plans for a referendum and multi-party elections.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, in a front page commentary in its overseas edition, said China must stick to its line in opposing any attempt to force regime change or intervene in Syria.
"If Western countries continue to fully support Syria's opposition, then in the end a large-scale civil war will erupt and there will be no way to thus avoid the possibility of foreign armed intervention," Qu Xing, who the paper identified as a foreign affairs expert, wrote in the piece.
If the Security Council had passed the resolution backing the Arab League for Assad to step down, that would only have lead to more violence, Qu wrote.
"Assad would have had his back up against the wall with all means of retreat cut off, and the opposition would have been encouraged to press steadily forward. Clashes would have been even worse than they are now."
Over the weekend, thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the heart of the capital in one of the biggest anti-government rallies there since a nationwide uprising started nearly a year ago.
The latest unrest took place as Chinese envoy Zhai met Assad and appealed to all sides to end the violence. Zhai also met opposition members.
Zhai also expressed Beijing's support for Assad's plan to hold a referendum and multi-party elections within four months -- a move the West and some in Syria's fragmented opposition movement have dismissed as a sham.
Chinese state media has published numerous commentaries in recent days on Syria, warning against armed intervention, forced regime change or sanctions, in a reflection of government thinking on the issue.
China and Russia have been Assad's most important international defenders during the crackdown which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers. The United Nations, the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab powers want Assad to step down and have condemned the repression.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Kim Coghill)