UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The previously divided U.N. Security Council sent a strong and united message to the Syrian government and opposition on Wednesday to immediately implement proposals by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the yearlong bloodshed.
A nonbinding statement approved by the 15 council members and read at a formal meeting spells out Annan's six proposals which include a cease-fire first by the Syrian government, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide humanitarian aid, and inclusive Syrian-led political talks "to address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian people."
Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, appealed to the Security Council last Friday for its backing, saying the stronger and more unified the message, the better the chances of shifting the dynamics of the conflict.
The U.N. estimates that well over 8,000 people have been killed over the past year.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, said the council statement sends "precisely the strong and united message to the Syrian government and all other actors in Syria that they need to respond, and respond quickly and immediately, to the six-point plan."
In a bid to win support from Russia and China, which have twice vetoed European and U.S.-backed resolutions condemning President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protesters, France watered down the statement to eliminate possible consideration of "further measures" which could include sanctions or military action.
Instead, the presidential statement now asks Annan to update the council regularly on the progress of his mission and says that "in the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate."
A presidential statement, which needs approval from all council members, becomes part of the council's permanent record. It is stronger than a press statement, which does not. But unlike resolutions, neither statement is legally binding.
Russia and China had called the earlier resolutions unbalanced, saying they only blamed the Syrian government and demanded an end to government attacks, not ones by the opposition. Moscow also argued that the resolutions promoted regime change in Syria and expressed fear of outside intervention to support the rebels, as happened in Libya.
"The most important (thing) is that the document contains no ultimatums, threats or theses on who is to blame," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Berlin, where he met his German counterpart.
He added: "We are bringing our positions on Syria closer."
Gerard Araud, the U.N. Ambassador from France, which sponsored the statement, said, "It's not a question of threat or of ultimatum. We are expressing our support to Mr. Kofi Annan."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington it was "quite significant" that the council united behind Annan's mission and urged Assad and his regime to "take this path, commit to it or face increasing pressure and isolation."
She called on the Syrian military to refuse orders to fire on its fellow citizens, and on business leaders still supporting Assad to back Annan's mission.
One of the sticking points among Russia, Syria and the West is the sequencing of a cease-fire. Syria says the opposition must lay down its arms first. Russia says the government and opposition must stop fighting simultaneously. Western countries insist that since Assad's forces started fighting first and are responsible for most of the killings, they must stop first.
Annan's proposal would require the Syrian government to immediately stop troop movements and halt the use of heavy weapons in populated areas. As these actions are taking place, it says the government should work with Annan to bring about a halt to violence, under U.N. supervision.
It says Annan should seek similar commitments from the opposition — with no mention of a time frame.
Annan met twice with Assad on March 10-11 and has sent a team to Damascus to discuss implementation of his proposal.
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig expressed hope that the statement "will change the dynamic on the ground."
"This is a newly found unity of the council which we welcome after this rather sad track record of the two double-vetoes in the past, and it shows nobody can really have an interest of mayhem in the region," Wittig said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called the Syrian crisis the most serious issue facing the world, gave strong backing to the council statement and called on the Syrian government and opposition "to work in good faith" with Annan, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Annan's team is having "good discussions with the Syrian government," but he said Annan's plan calls for engagement with the opposition, "and so far I'm not aware of much success in engaging them."
"This ... is going to be crucial if the Syrian-led political process is established with the help of Mr. Annan," he said.
Clinton said the United States is working with the Syrian opposition "to strengthen its preparation to participate in the Syrian-led transition process that the council has endorsed."
The presidential statement makes no mention of the Arab League peace plan, which calls for Assad to hand power to his vice-president.
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.