By Paul Ingrassia and Edmund Blair
CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League chief said on Monday that Russia and China had lost diplomatic credit in the Arab world by vetoing a U.N. resolution on Syria and may have sent a message to Damascus that it had a free hand to crack down on protests.
But Nabil Elaraby said he would continue working with Moscow and Beijing and other U.N. Security Council members to end the violence that spiked on Monday with the bombardment of the Syrian city of Homs, which activists said killed 50 people.
Elaraby told Reuters the veto had been a "reality check" for Syria's opposition groups, who have so far refused the League's call to engage with President Bashar al-Assad's government, showing them that it was not Arabs blocking tougher action on Damascus but rather world powers who were not united.
"Regrettably, the Russians and Chinese delegations decided at the last moment to use the veto and here I must say, this question of the veto, whether used by Russia or any other country, is something unacceptable," the secretary-general said in an interview at the League's Cairo headquarters.
"I'm not blaming them but the Syrian opposition was under an illusion that the Arab League was standing between them and the solution - the solution is the Libyan scenario. But the Libyan scenario is out of the picture," he said.
During the Libyan uprising, Arabs backed a no-fly zone over Libya that led to a U.N. resolution and then NATO air strikes. Arabs and world powers have ruled out military action on Syria.
Asked if Moscow and Beijing had lost diplomatic credit in the Arab world after the veto, Elaraby said: "The short answer is yes." But he added that Arabs would work with them "because we need them."
Elaraby said he had spoken to Sergei Lavrov earlier on Monday and said the Russian foreign minister would present an initiative to Damascus on a visit there on Tuesday. He would not give details and when asked if he thought it could end the crisis, he replied: "They believe so."
Elaraby, visibly frustrated at the veto, said he had left New York last week after briefing the U.N. Security Council and holding talks with Russia and China believing that any differences could be resolved by amending some wording.
"I left Wednesday evening with that understanding. By Friday, there were some other matters" that prevented an agreement, he said, though he said he was not clear what.
"There was no need for the veto, We were about to reach a conclusion on the resolution that would have been supported by everyone. The (Syrian) government, definitely, may have interpreted this as the international community unable to do anything and (so) we can do whatever we want," said Elaraby, who spent years as a diplomat at the United Nations.
The U.N. resolution would have backed an Arab initiative calling for Assad to step aside and delegate powers to a deputy to begin dialogue with the opposition. It would also have backed calls for Syria to withdraw troops from residential areas and free prisoners detained in protests.
The Arab League launched its new initiative on January 22, including a call to approach the Security Council, after an earlier effort that involved sending monitors to Syria failed to end violence. Arabs had agreed economic sanctions but Syria's neighbors did not implement them, blunting their impact.
Arab foreign ministers meet again next week to discuss the fate of the monitoring mission after six Gulf Arab states, Jordan and Morocco withdrew their teams. Elaraby said he believed they quit because "it was not effective enough."
He said a new mission could be sent but under different terms and with more members than the 200-strong observer team.
"If we are going to send another mission, and we are contemplating that, it has to be stronger in numbers and in equipment. The mandate has to be different," he said, adding it would need international not just Arab backing this time.
He said any new mission would require Syria's approval, as with any other peacekeeping force deployed around the world.
"The real problem here is you cannot force your way in. You have to do this in agreement with the authorities in Syria. The authorities in Syria by now realize they have a serious problem and cannot go on with the way they are," he said.
Elaraby, who is in regular contact with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, said the Syrian authorities blamed a foreign-backed conspiracy.
Arabs would continue working to end the crisis but had a limited scope to act without international support, he said.
"We have put all our cards ... on the table. It is up to the United Nations to decide. The Security Council has failed," he said. "We have nothing else to do. We have 10 floors here (in the Arab League headquarters). Go find our planes or our tanks. What else do you expect us to do?"
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens)