SOUTH African embassy staff in Syria are moving to neighbouring Lebanon, as violence in the capital, Damascus, increases and observers question if SA's lack of a firmer stance on the issue could lead to embarrassment similar to that caused by indecision over Libya.

Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Nelson Kgwete said yesterday there were no plans to close the embassy, but operations were being "scaled down" amid rising violence in Damascus. Embassy staff would continue to "monitor the situation" from Lebanon, while the staff who chose to remain could offer consular services in Syria, he said.

Last week, SA joined Pakistan in choosing to abstain in a western-backed United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution on Syria - vetoed by both China and Russia - aimed to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's government to end the violence that has led to an estimated death toll exceeding 10000.

Deputy International Relations Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said on Friday SA's abstention had been in the wake of a failure to create a "balanced" resolution that would include conditions on both parties.

Mr Ebrahim expressed support for joint special envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, saying "there can be no military solution" and that Syrian-led negotiations were "the only hope for the Syrian people".

But many international experts contend that Russia and China's veto - their third veto of a Security Council resolution on Syria - represents a death blow to Mr Annan's six-point peace plan for the country.

On Friday, the Democratic Alliance warned that SA was "being left on the wrong side of history once again" following indecision over the UN action in Libya.

SA had similarly pushed for negotiations between the Libyan government and rebels in that country, which had ultimately seen the Libyan government overthrown.

But a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Thomas Wheeler, said SA's "cautious" stance on Syria did not so much represent "fence-sitting" as much as "standing back and allowing others more directly affected to deal with the situation".

With Sapa