MOSCOW - Russia on Monday accused the West of effectively using blackmail to secure a new U.N. Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions and could open the door for possible future use of military force to end Syria's civil war.
The Security Council is deeply divided over a new resolution on Syria as international envoy Kofi Annan's plan for halting the fighting appears dead and the violence in the Arab state escalates. The international Red Cross formally declared the conflict in Syria a civil war over the weekend, which paves the way for potential war crimes prosecutions.
The debate comes ahead of the July 20 expiration of the mandate for the 300-strong U.N. observer force that was deployed to Syria to monitor implementation of Annan's six-point peace plan and a cease-fire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that the West was holding the observer mission hostage to its demands for sanctions on President Bashar Assad's government.
Russia, a longtime Syria ally, faces intense criticism that it is standing in the way of an end to the conflict there by refusing to approve a resolution even threatening possible sanctions, which the U.S. and its European allies are demanding.
Lavrov met Annan on Monday evening, though they were not expected to talk to the press afterward. The former U.N. chief was scheduled to meet with Russian President Putin on Tuesday.
Russia has adamantly opposed international military intervention in Syria, and such a step has been all but ruled out publicly by Western nations.
But the text for a Western-backed resolution circulated by Britain threatening sanctions would leave the possibility open for military enforcement under the U.N. Charter's Chapter 7. Russia has submitted a rival text that makes no mention of Chapter 7 or sanctions but would extend the U.N. observer mission.
Lavrov insisted that the West was using the July 20 deadline for the mission's mandate as a bargaining chip.
"To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail," Lavrov said at a news conference. "We are being told that if you do not agree to passing the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, then we shall refuse to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission."
"We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach, since it is unacceptable to use monitors as bargaining chips," he said.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Annan should tell the Russians what he told council members last week: "that he needs the council to come together around a resolution that makes very clear that there are consequences for non-compliance."
The British draft threatens non-military sanctions against Assad's government if it doesn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from population centres within 10 days.
A closed council session Monday afternoon made no progress in bridging the differences.
Rice, the U.S. envoy, said the observer mission has been unable to do its job because of the escalating violence and if the council is not prepared "to back up the mandate we gave them with the tools at our disposal, even to threaten sanctions, not even impose sanctions under Chapter 7, then we're leaving these guys hanging — and it's completely, not only ineffective, but it's immoral."
The Security Council has scheduled a vote on the resolution Wednesday — leaving two days for possible last-minute manoeuvring before the observer mission's mandate expires. Both the British and Russian texts have been put in a final form for a vote.
Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions that mentioned the threat of sanctions against Assad's regime. But they did vote for the resolution authorizing the observer mission and endorsing Annan's six-point plan.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters he refused to participate in the council's closed-door discussions on Monday because a Chapter 7 resolution "is totally unacceptable to us."
If the British draft is put to a vote, Churkin said, "I made it clear that we are going to vote against this resolution — and we are not going to be the only ones."
"We know that this is seen by some as a stepping stone for foreign military intervention," he said.
Churkin added that it will be "counterproductive" and "wrong" if the council doesn't extend the mandate of the observer mission and endorse the guidelines for a political transition in Syria which were approved at a meeting in Geneva last month.
China's U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong told reporters "we have problems with Chapter 7 elements but we think that the council members should continue consultations to solve the differences."
Throughout the 16-month Syrian crisis, in which activists say some 17,000 people have been killed in fighting between Assad's forces and opposition groups, Russia has warned against foreign military intervention, fearing a repeat of the type of international action that helped drive Libya's Moammar Gadhafi out of power.
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and Moscow wants to retain a foothold in the region. Although the Kremlin has criticized Assad for heavy-handed use of force during the 18-month uprising, it — along with China — also has shielded the regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.
Russia maintains that any change of power in Syria must be achieved through negotiation, but the Syrian opposition has repeatedly said no negotiations with the Assad regime are possible unless he first leaves power.
Comments by Annan last week indicated that he favours the British resolution draft, but it was unclear if he would have any significant leverage to exert on Russia during his two-day trip to Moscow.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.