UN Security Council awaits word from Kremlin on Syrian resolution

If Moscow approves its ambassador's decision to support the text, it would be the first time that Russia would agree on serious UN criticism of the Assad regime.

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al Assad after Friday prayers in Idlib.
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NEW YORK // Ambassadors at the United Nations Security Council have reached a preliminary agreement on a toned-down resolution intended to resolve the Syrian crisis but the deal is awaiting a definite decision from the Kremlin, multiple diplomats said.

They said a vote could come as early as today if Russian authorities in Moscow back the decision by its ambassador in New York to support the resolution.

A report by Interfax news agency last night quoted the deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, as saying that Moscow could not support the latest draft. But the report left unclear whether Russia would veto or abstain on the resolution.

The agreed text "fully supports" an Arab League plan for a "a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system." The plan stipulates that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad would hand power to a vice president during the transition period leading to democratic elections.

A specific call for Mr Al Assad to step aside was excised from the draft under a veto threat by Moscow. Western diplomats said full support for the Arab League implies that Mr Al Assad would step down, as that is a key part of the plan.

But Russia could claim that the resolution does not explicitly call for his removal.

At Moscow's insistence, a voluntary arms embargo on Syria was also cut from the draft. Russia is a major arms supplier to Damascus.

Russian officials have remained in contact with Syrian opposition figures, including in New York this week, working to ensure that Moscow's interests would be safeguarded in a post-Assad Syria, diplomats said.

If Moscow approves its ambassador's decision to support the text, it would be the first time that Russia would agree on serious UN criticism of the Assad regime.

The resolution "condemns" continued "widespread and gross violations of human rights" by the Syrian government. It lists them as "the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, killing and persecution of protesters and members of the media, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment, including against children".

The draft also condemns violence by the regime's opponents, including "attacks against State institutions". And it calls for human rights violators to be held accountable; for the government to cease attacks on civilians; release political prisoners; withdraw Syrian military units from towns and cities; guarantee peaceful demonstrations and unhindered access for Arab League monitors and the news media.

An earlier draft gave Syria 15 days to comply with these demands. If Damascus failed to do so, the council would consider "further measures" in consultation with the Arab League.

This was interpreted by Moscow as a threat of economic sanctions, a position Russia rejects. But the new draft gives Syria 21 days, after which the council would still consider additional measures. Reference to consultation with the Arab League was dropped, in deference to Moscow, a diplomat said.

"Everyone around the table said we were all on an ambassadorial level committed to this text," a western diplomat said. "Of course Moscow has to give a green light and we don't know when that will happen."

"I don't want to sound overly optimistic because it's in the hands of Moscow," he said.

The diplomat said that it might perhaps be Russia's "their last best opportunity to adjust their Syria policy and come into the fold of common understanding".

If passed, the resolution "has the potential to make a difference on the ground", the diplomat said. "This is a signal. A resolution with Russia and China on board supporting the Arab League plan is a huge signal to the people and leadership of Syria."