The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday renewing the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria for 30 days, leaving the door open for a possible extension if the government stops using heavy weapons and the escalating violence is reduced significantly.
The resolution is a lifeline for the unarmed observers who were sent to Syria three months ago to monitor a cease-fire that never happened, and to watch over the implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, flouted by President Bashar Assad's government.
The council voted shortly after Russia's ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said he believed Assad was ready to step down "in a civilized way." The Syrian government immediately denied it, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said the ambassador's statements were "wrongly interpreted."
The U.N. suspended the observers' patrols and most of their other activities on June 16 because of increased violence, and its mandate had been set to expire Friday.
The force's future had been in doubt following Russian and Chinese vetoes of a Western-backed U.N. resolution Thursday pressuring Assad's government to end the civil war by threatening sanctions. Russia had opposed the resolution on grounds that it opened the door to military action, which it adamantly opposes.
In Moscow, spokesman Dmitry Peskov alluded to any future actions not sanctioned by the U.N. saying Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that "any attempts to act bypassing the U.N. Security Council will not be effective and only undermine the authority of this international organization."
He made the comments following a closed meeting with Putin and Russia's top military and intelligence officials.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had said Friday morning that he would also veto the original British-drafted resolution on the observer mission and support a rival Pakistani text that would have extended the mission for 45 days, with the possibility of further renewals.
But after closed-door consultations called by Pakistan, all 15 council members reached agreement on a revised British text, which allows for the mission's renewal after 30 days if Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council confirm that the Syrian government has withdrawn heavy weapons from populated areas and both sides have significantly reduced the violence so the observers can do their job.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the resolution would allow the observers to withdraw safely, and it was unlikely the situation on the ground would change enough to enable their mandate to be renewed a second time. Russia's Churkin countered: "This is not a resolution about withdrawal. It is a resolution about continuation of the mission."
With the divided Security Council unable to adopt a resolution threatening sanctions, the U.S. and European Union are pressing to enforce their own.
The EU announced Friday it will enforce an arms embargo against Syria by boarding ships and aircraft on EU territory or in its waters suspected of carrying suspicious cargo to the war-torn nation. It said the boardings would start following expected approval by EU foreign ministers on Monday.
The seemingly contradictory reports over Assad's intentions fueled the debate over his future, which already had intensified following this week's daring attack in Damascus that killed four people close to him. The victims included his powerful brother-in-law and deputy defence minister, and his defence minister.
Orlov, the Russian ambassador in Paris, said in an interview with Radio France Internationale that Assad's acceptance of an international agreement in June for a transition toward a more democratic regime, and his subsequent naming a representative to negotiate the transition, meant that he was prepared to give up leadership.
"Personally ... I think it will be difficult for him to stay in office, given everything that's happened," Orlov told RFI.
He later backtracked in an interview with BFM TV, saying in response to a question that he did not think Assad's days were numbered.
"I say it's for Syrian people to determine that ... Is the regime coming to an end or not? It's not for me to say," Orlov said.
The ambassador blamed the confusion on the fact that he was misunderstood.
Syrian TV quickly said the interview had been taken out of context.
The Russian Foreign Ministry wrote in its Twitter feed that "It's only for the Syrian people to decide the future of the Syrian republic and its leaders."
The remarks by ambassador Orlov added a new layer of interpretation to the Geneva agreement, which was based on a U.N.-brokered peace plan that Syria's president was party to. In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underlined at the time that the plan does not require Assad's ouster, saying there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
Ganley reported from Paris. Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.