UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In a major diplomatic blow for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and China joined the Security Council on Wednesday in voicing support for U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's bid to end violence that has brought Syria to the brink of civil war.
Western diplomats said the agreement on a declaration of the "gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria" should be a wake-up call for Assad, who has counted on support from staunch ally Russia to fend off international criticism of his yearlong attempt to crush anti-government protests.
The statement threatens Syria with "further steps" if it fails to comply with Annan's six-point peace proposal, which calls for a cease-fire, political dialogue between the government and opposition, and full access for aid agencies.
The U.S.-European push for a council declaration backing Annan's mission came after Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions condemning Assad's assault on demonstrators, which the United Nations says has killed well over 8,000 civilians.
Although the statement does not explicitly back an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside, it does include Annan's call for a political process that echoes that plan.
It voices "full support for the efforts of (Annan) to bring an immediate end to all violence and human rights violations, secure humanitarian access, and facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system."
The statement also demands the Syrian government stop fighting first - something Annan and the West have called for.
"The Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers," it said.
Once the government forces stop fighting, Syrian authorities "should work with (Annan) to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties."
Unlike resolutions, which are usually seen as legally binding and need nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent council members to pass, statements are generally non-binding but require unanimous support from the council.
One Western envoy told Reuters that all council decisions, including presidential statements, are binding. The International Court of Justice, however, made clear in a 1971 advisory opinion that not all council decisions are in fact legally binding.
U.S. URGES SYRIAN ARMY TO STOP FIRING
Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the former U.N. chief was "encouraged by the united support of the Security Council and urges the Syrian authorities to respond positively." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said Ban "strongly welcomes" it.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the statement was "a modest, but important step." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also greeted the statement and appealed to "the Syrian military to refuse orders to fire on their fellow citizens."
"We're also calling on members of the business community who still support the regime to work on behalf of implementing the Security Council statement and Kofi Annan's mission," she said.
Western powers diluted the 15-nation council's "presidential statement" on Tuesday in an effort to secure the support of Russia, which had disliked language in an earlier version that it said sounded like an ultimatum for Syria, diplomats said.
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin shortly before the statement was adopted, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that Moscow fully supported the amended text.
"The most important thing is that there are no ultimatums ... and no suggestions as to who carries more blame," he said. In New York, Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said the council had "finally chosen to take a pragmatic look at Syria."
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the statement sends a "strong and united message to the government and all other actors in Syria that they need to respond ... immediately" to Annan's peace proposals.
The council also approved informal remarks to the press that Russia had asked the council to issue condemning bomb attacks last weekend in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
The presidential statement is separate from a U.S.-drafted resolution calling on Syria to allow access to humanitarian aid workers in the country.
The last time the council passed a presidential statement on Syria was August 2011, although council members reached a rare unanimous agreement on informal remarks to the press on March 1 to rebuke Damascus for not allowing U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos into the country.
Shortly after the council approved those remarks to the press, Amos was allowed to visit Damascus.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Andrew Quinn and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott)