Russia calls for swift U.N. approval of Syria mission


Russia called on Friday for the swift adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to send hundreds of U.N. observers to monitor a shaky ceasefire in Syria, where government forces have killed thousands of civilians in 13 months of bloodshed.

An advance team of U.N. observers is in Syria monitoring a 10-day-old truce that has not ended the violence. Deployment of a larger force, which U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon hopes will be up to 300 strong, needs Security Council agreement.

Russia has armed Syria and shielded President Bashar al-Assad by blocking a Western and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolution that called on him to cede power, but has backed the peace plan of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Its push for quick approval of a U.N. monitoring force is a challenge to Western states wary of backing the mission in the absence of full Syrian government compliance with the ceasefire and U.N. demands for a pullout of its forces from cities and towns.

“We should do everything we can to adopt, as soon as possible, a second resolution that will approve a full-scale observer mission,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting of the Russian and Italian foreign and defense chiefs.

Assad’s foes fear that a small observer mission with a weak mandate would act as little more than a fig leaf for the government, blocking more robust intervention to halt a crackdown on cities that have risen up against Assad.

Russia adamantly opposes military intervention in Syria. Moscow says NATO used a U.N. resolution authorizing operations to protect civilians in Libya to help rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year and has vowed not to let this happen in Syria.

Russia has pledged its full support for Annan’s peace plan and last week called on the Syrian government to step up implementation, but has also put much of the blame for the bloodshed on the opposition forces.

Lavrov said global and regional powers should “apply pressure to all groups in Syria without exception to cooperate in implementing Annan’s plan, which includes calls for a ceasefire, withdrawals and political dialogue in Syria.

Lavrov reiterated Russia’s claim that some foreign nations hope Annan’s plan will fail, paving the way for other forms of pressure on Assad’s government, potentially ranging from sanctions to military intervention.

“There are some, including outside Syria, who would like to spoil Annan’s plan,” he said.

Moscow says foreign demands for Assad’s exit amount to unacceptable interference in the affairs of Syria, which has given Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East.

Russia’s support for Annan’s plan indicates it want to keep diplomacy on Syria in the Security Council, where it holds veto power, and some analysts suspect it is using its clout as a veto-wielding member to help the government play for time.

But Moscow has stepped up criticism of Assad and courted his opponents, suggesting it is hedging its bets and hopes to preserve influence in Syria if he is forced out.