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UN Security Council poised to threaten Syria's Assad - with Russia's blessing

The United Nations Security Council secured Russia's critical backing yesterday for a statement backing envoy Kofi Annan's peacemaking plan. The step marks a distinct shift in Russia's stance.

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    Joint special envoy on Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League Kofi Annan, gives a statement after his address to the Security Council in New York by videolink at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Friday.
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After months of inaction on Syria because of the opposition of veto-wielding members Russia and China, the United Nations Security Council is poised to approve a draft statement backing a new peacemaking effort to end the violence.

The draft expresses “full support” for special envoy Kofi Annan’s peacemaking efforts and warns Damascus of “further steps” by the UN if it doesn’t meet UN demands “in a timely manner,” Reuters reports. Mr. Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, is acting as envoy for both the UN and the Arab League.

The Security Council members spent Tuesday negotiating the text of the draft, easing the demands on the Syrian government to secure Russia’s approval. A previous version that threatened further UN action if Damascus did not comply within seven days was rejected by Russia as an ultimatum, according to Reuters.

If no one on the council raises further objections before 9 a.m. EST today, the draft will be automatically adopted, Voice of America reports. China has indicated its support, reports Xinhua. The draft includes a call for a cease-fire, dialogue between the government and opposition, and total access for humanitarian work.

Russia has steadfastly stood between the UN and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the uprising began a year ago, vetoing along with China two previous resolutions. If Moscow goes along with this draft statement, it will be a “diplomatic blow” to Russia's ally Assad, according to Reuters.

Yesterday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a pre-recorded interview for Russian radio station Kommersant FM that the Assad regime has made many mistakes. "We believe that the Syrian leadership responded incorrectly to the very first manifestations of the peaceful protests. The Syrian leadership – despite the numerous promises it has made in response to our calls – is making a lot of mistakes. Unfortunately this is why the conflict is so acute," Mr. Lavrov said, according to RTT, which characterized his remarks as representing a "distinct shift" in Russia's position.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has faced several setbacks in the last month, with government troops wresting control of the cities of Homs and Idlib, two rebel strongholds. Yesterday, the Free Syrian Army, an armed wing of the opposition, had to flee the city of Deir al-Zour amid a government assault, Bloomberg reports.

The Associated Press reports that the opposition is critically low on weapons and is struggling to pose a challenge to the regime’s professional army. Illicit arms supply lines are drying up because of both rising gun prices and increased security at borders and the weapons they do have – mostly light ones, such as Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades – are no match for the regime’s tanks and more substantial weapons.

The opposition says it will be unable to stop Assad’s forces from crushing the uprising unless it gets more outside military aid; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Libya all express support for the move, but no country has publicly said it is supplying them with arms. The US and much of Europe have rejected the idea of sending weapons, fearing it will “fuel a civil war,” according to AP. In the meantime, rebels are getting much of their supplies by looting government troops’ weapon caches.

In a letter made public yesterday, Human Rights Watch accused the opposition of committing “serious human rights abuses,” citing evidence of kidnappings, torture, and executions, CNN reports.

"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances."

Free Syrian Army Lt. Riad Ahmed said a "few incidents are a drop in a bucket in comparison to what the regime is committing."

Speaking in Indonesia, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that world leaders could not guess at what would happen in Syria, but that the events have “potentially massive repercussions for the region and the world,” The New York Times reports.

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