Civilians walk past damaged building at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
By Steve Gutterman and Michelle Nichols
MOSCOW/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia denounced on Wednesday a Western-Arab draft U.N. Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria as a bid to lay the groundwork for military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Russia announced it would veto the current text because it contains "one-sided accusations" against Assad's government, though Russia and its Security Council ally China said they are prepared to negotiate on a new draft if such a move could boost aid access.
Since receiving the draft resolution on Thursday, Moscow has been outspoken in its opposition. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as "detached from reality," while U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed it as a "non-starter."
On Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov added to Moscow's argument: "Its whole purpose and aim is to create grounds for future military action against the Syrian government if some demands it includes are not met."
"It is unacceptable to us in the form in which it is now being prepared, and we, of course, will not let it through," said Gatilov, according to state-run news agency RIA.
But Russia appears to have softened its long-held resistance to a resolution on Syria aid access, which was drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, by signaling it would be willing to work with the council on a new draft. Diplomats said Russia presented amendments to the draft at a meeting on Wednesday of the permanent council members, known as the "P5."
"The P5 ambassadors will meet on (Thursday) to merge the texts," a council diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "We're all working on a draft and that's good."
Several diplomats, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Churkin had told the Security Council on Tuesday he did not like 30 percent of the current draft resolution, but did not specify what aspects he disagreed with.
Russia and China have shielded Syria on the U.N. Security Council during the country's three-year-long civil war. The pair have vetoed three resolutions condemning Syria's government and threatening it with possible sanctions.
STALLING OVER SOCHI?
Russia has said it is not trying to prop up Assad, but that he must not be forced out by foreign powers and it opposes Western military intervention.
The United States threatened air strikes after a deadly gas attack in August, but that threat was averted when Assad pledged to give up his chemical weapons.
The draft aid text, obtained by Reuters, expresses an intent to impose sanctions on individuals and entities obstructing aid and if certain demands in the resolution are not met within 15 days of its adoption. It does not threaten military action for non-compliance with council demands and makes no reference to provisions of the U.N. charter covering the use of force.
Some Western diplomats have suggested Moscow is attempting to stall any Security Council action on the humanitarian situation in Syria until the Winter Olympics, being held in Sochi, Russia, finish on February 23.
"The Russians are playing for time. We would like to complete negotiations and put this to a vote soon," said one senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is a text on the table, it is negotiable and we're happy to negotiate."
The draft resolution condemns rights abuses by Syrian authorities and armed groups, and demands that Syrian forces stop all aerial bombardment of cities and towns as well as the indiscriminate use of bombs, rockets and related weapons.
It also condemns "increased terrorist attacks," and calls for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from Syria.
When asked if Beijing would negotiate on a draft text to try and increase aid access, China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi said on Wednesday, "We'll work with the other council members."
"We're all concerned about the humanitarian problem in Syria and the important things are to achieve unity of the council and also to work in ways that will actually facilitate the ongoing political process in Geneva," he said, referring to fragile Syrian peace talks in Switzerland.
"Also we need to see what kind of a reaction from the council can actually be helpful on the ground in terms of actually delivering humanitarian access," Liu said.
U.N. AID CHIEF TO BRIEF
The United Nations says some 9.3 million Syrians - nearly half the country's population - need help and U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos has repeatedly expressed frustration that violence and red tape are slowing the aid deliveries to a trickle.
Western members of the Security Council have been considering a resolution on aid for almost a year. After months of talks, the council eventually adopted a non-binding statement on October 2 urging more access to aid, but that statement produced little administrative progress.
Amos, who is due to brief the Security Council behind closed doors on Thursday, told a council debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict on Wednesday that there were some 250,000 people trapped in besieged areas of Syria.
The Syrian government and opposition have agreed on a pause in hostilities to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of civilians from Homs, Syria's third-largest city, though aid workers came under attack over the weekend.
Russian officials have said the agreement on Homs has demonstrated that a Security Council resolution was not needed to address the problem at this point, and could serve as a template for similar operations elsewhere in Syria.
The United Nations says that well over 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 136,000 have been killed since the uprising began against Assad.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Elizabeth Piper, G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker)