Hopes for a breakthrough on the deadlock over a UN Security Council resolution on Syria rose as references to regime change were dropped to overcome Russian objections to the Western-backed draft motion .
Officials said a call to stop arms sales to all sides in the conflict had been dropped and Russian concerns saw the watering down of an endorsement of an Arab League drive for President Bashar al-Assad to hand his powers over to his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa.
The new version cut out key clauses about “formation of a national unity government” and “delegation by the president of Syria of his full authority to his deputy.”
Russia said it had a “better understanding” of how to reacch consensus, a possible signal that it could vote for the measure.
But there were suggestions that Russia would not “show its cards” until after a meeting of the National Security Council in Moscow on Friday.
Sources close to the negotiations said that Russia had repeatedly said it would not accept a resolution that explicitly called for regime change, but had been vague about whether it would agree to support the Arab League plan for a political transition.
While the negotiations have appeared to show Moscow is interested in seeking a consensus – in particular it does not want to be seen to be snubbing the League by vetoing a resolution – there are domestic and regional pressures on Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, which are said to be unhelpful.
Next month’s presidential elections in Russia has led to concerns the government will be reluctant to appear weak by giving way to the West over Syria, while the Putin camp may feel that pro-democracy protest movements in other countries should not be encouraged at a time when demonstrations in Russia have sprung up.
Moscow also has strategic and financial interests in Syria. To remove this stumbling block, the Western powers have agreed to remove references to economic sanctions and weapons sales from the draft.
While China, South Africa and, to a lesser extent, India and Pakistan are also said to be luke-warm about the resolution, UN sources said that they were not expected to reject the resolution if Russia voted for it or abstained.
Britain is concerned that failure to pass the resolution will discourage members of the Syrian opposition who have argued for peaceful protests, and encourage those who say the only way to get rid of President Assad is through a violent uprising.
The UN stopped estimating the death toll in Syria after it passed 5,400 in January, saying it figures were rising too quickly to build an accurate total.