UNITED NATIONS Russia offered a new, beefed-up draft resolution on the violence in Syria to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, and Western countries said for the first time they were willing to negotiate over it.
Although Western envoys said the Russian text was too weak, their readiness to work on it offered a chance for the Security Council to overcome its deadlock and issue the 15-nation panel's first resolution on Syria's bloody nine-month-old crackdown on opposition protesters.
The council has released just one formal statement, split between Western countries harshly critical of Syria on the one hand, and Russia, China and nonaligned countries on the other that have refused to put the main blame on Damascus for the violence.
Western diplomats believe a firm resolution backed by Syria's long-standing ally Russia could make a real difference to a crisis that U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said this week had so far led to more than 5,000 civilian deaths.
Russia and China vetoed in October a West European draft resolution that contained a threat of sanctions. Russia has twice circulated its own draft, most recently in September, but Western countries dismissed it, saying it made an unacceptable attempt to assign blame equally to government and opposition.
The draft circulated unexpectedly by Russia on Thursday to the council expands and toughens Moscow's previous text, adding a new reference to "disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities."
The draft, obtained by Reuters, also "urges the Syrian government to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters it "considerably strengthens all aspects of the previous text" and that "clearly the Syrian authorities are singled out in a number of instances."
He said Russia did not believe both sides in Syria were equally responsible for violence, but acknowledged it called on all parties to halt violence and contained no threat of sanctions, which he said Moscow continued to oppose.
Western officials welcomed the Russian move, but said the draft needed what French Ambassador Gerard Araud called "a lot of amendments."
"We are ready to work with that text," British envoy Michael Tatham said. "But let me be clear: we believe that we need a Security Council resolution that matches the gravity of the situation on the ground in Syria. And in our view the text circulated by Russia does not do this."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there were "some issues in it that we would not be able to support."
But "hopefully we can work with the Russians, who for the first time at least are recognizing that this is a matter that needs to go to the Security Council," she added.
Western officials contested Churkin's view that the draft did not blame both sides equally for the violence, in which Damascus says more than 1,000 security forces have been killed by the opposition.
"This text is in fact putting an equivalence between the two sides," Araud said.
German Ambassador Peter Wittig said the Russian draft was "an opportunity to bridge gaps and to break the silence of the council," but needed "more elements."
He said it should reflect Pillay's report to the Security Council this week, fully back decisions by the Arab League, which is due to discuss Syria again on Saturday, and set up the council's own commission of inquiry into events in Syria.
Araud suggested Western countries might also want to propose including an arms embargo. But he and other Western envoys stopped short of saying it should threaten sanctions, saying it should support those the Arab League has imposed.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Xavier Briand)