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Middle East

UN waters down Syria proposals in bid to win Russia's backing

Call for Assad's removal is dropped and arms embargo shelved in effort to placate Moscow

UN Security Council diplomats yesterday were moving towards a watered-down resolution on Syria that would secure a yes vote from Russia by removing a call for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and dropping direct threats of an arms embargo or new sanctions.

Amid continuing intense negotiations, US, Arab and Russian officials all sounded more upbeat over prospects for an agreed text. In fact, any consensus would be acknowledgement that the tougher terms championed by the Arab League and backed by the West could not survive Moscow's veto.

In a gesture to the Arab League, which last weekend withdrew its monitors from Syria as the violence continued unchecked, the latest version "fully supports" the League's decision to "facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system". Gone, however, is the explicit demand that Mr Assad delegate powers to his deputy within 15 days, and that a government of national unity be installed.

Although China – another permanent council member with veto powers – also disapproved of the original text circulated by Morocco, the loudest objections have come from Russia.

Moscow is determined to prevent any repeat of what happened over Libya, when it let through a UN resolution that helped bring down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – and, as the Kremlin saw it, underlined Russia's scant influence in world affairs. For that same reason, Moscow will do nothing that undermines virtually its last significant ally in the Arab world. Another factor however is the lucrative arms export trade with Syria, including equipment used to suppress the current protest. Despite overwhelming international criticism of the Assad regime's brutal tactics, the Putin/Medvedev government intends those sales to continue. "As of today there are no restrictions on the delivery of weapons and we must fulfil our obligations, and this what we are doing," the Deputy Defence Minister, Anatoly Antonov, said.

Nevertheless, the Arab League which has lobbied hard but now apparently in vain for a genuinely strong UN response, insisted that even a weaker resolution would help. "It will still put pressure on the Syrian government, because they realise that Russia cannot stand up forever," said Nabil al-Araby, the League's chief. "Russia does not want to be against the people," he added.

It was still uncertain last night when a final vote would be taken, despite the insistence by the US and its allies that the Council act swiftly. The decision ought to be simple Hillary Clinton declared this week: "Are you on the side of the Syrian people, or are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime?"