In an effort to secure Russian support, Western powers on the UN Security Council on Tuesday diluted a draft statement backing UN-Arab League Syrian envoy Kofi Annan's drive to end violence that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The 15-nation panel held two rounds of negotiations on Tuesday on a Western-drafted statement that would express "full support" for Annan's peace efforts while threatening Damascus with "further steps" if it failed to comply with the council's demands "in a timely manner," council diplomats told Reuters.
A previous version of the statement had threatened Syria with new UN measures it Damascus failed to comply within seven days, which diplomats said Russia considered to be an ultimatum. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow could support a statement provided it contained no ultimatums.
The Western push for a "presidential statement" from the council backing Annan's mission comes after Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions condemning Syria's yearlong assault on demonstrators opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations says over 8,000 civilians have been killed in the crackdown.
Western envoys said securing Russian backing for the UN statement would be a diplomatic blow for Moscow's ally Assad.
After a two-hour closed-door negotiating session, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested to reporters that Moscow was prepared to back the Western-drafted statement.
"Some need instructions," he said when asked why the council had not approved the statement. "We were ready to go."
But a senior Western diplomat challenged Churkin's remarks, saying it was the Russian envoy who pushed for a delay in the adoption of the statement. "He (Churkin) decided in the end that he wanted to wait until tomorrow morning," the diplomat said.
If no one raises any objections by Wednesday morning, the statement will be automatically adopted without a vote under a process at the United Nations known as a "silence procedure."
Also up for automatic approval on Wednesday morning is a draft of informal remarks to the press that Syria's close ally Russia asked the council to approve. Those remarks would have the council condemn bomb attacks last weekend in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
Russia hardens position?
Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri expressed optimism that the statement would be approved by the council. "Some people want to consult their capitals, but it will work, that's the important thing," Puri told reporters.
Other diplomats said privately that Moscow or Beijing might tell their delegations to propose further changes to the statement.
If the statement is approved, it would be a further sign that Moscow, which has been Assad's staunchest supporter since he began cracking down on anti-government protesters a year ago, is toughening its position on the Syrian conflict.
Earlier on Tuesday, Lavrov said Syria's leadership had made "very many mistakes."
The core of the draft statement is Annan's six-point peace proposal, which calls for a cease-fire, political dialogue between the government and opposition, and full access for humanitarian agencies. As Lavrov had demanded, the statement includes Annan's proposal verbatim.
Western diplomats said privately that their push for a statement backing Annan highlighted their determination to break the impasse on the Security Council that has prevented it from taking any forceful action against Syria since Assad began cracking down on demonstrators.
Annan, a former UN secretary-general, on Friday urged the Security Council to overcome its deadlock and unify in support of his efforts to end the violence.
Unlike resolutions, which are legally binding and need nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent council members to pass, statements are generally non-binding but require unanimous support from the council.
The latest draft presidential statement is separate from a US-drafted resolution calling on Syria to allow access to humanitarian aid workers in the country.
The last time the council passed a presidential statement on Syria was August 2011, although council members reached a rare unanimous agreement on informal remarks to the press on March 1 to rebuke Damascus for not allowing UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos into the country.
Shortly after the council approved those remarks to the press, Amos was allowed to visit Damascus.