New York - The UN Security Council scheduled a vote on Saturday on a resolution authorising the deployment of the first wave of UN military observers to monitor a ceasefire between the Syrian government and opposition fighters which appears to be largely holding.
The ceasefire, which formally took effect on Thursday, is at the centre of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end more than a year of bloodshed that has killed over 9,000 people, according to the United Nations, and to launch inclusive Syrian-led talks on the country's political future.
Security Council members met behind closed doors for several hours on Friday to discuss rival drafts by the US and its European allies and by Russia, Syria's most important council ally.
Both called for the deployment of an advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers to initiate contacts with both sides and begin to report on implementation of "a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all partiesā€¯.
US Ambassador Susan Rice, the current council president, announced that the council will vote at 11 am EDT (1600 GMT) on Saturday.
Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told a news conference in Geneva that an advance team of "around 10 or 12" observers, that could quickly be increased to 30, is "standing by to board planes and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible" once the Security Council approves their deployment.
Troops already in the region from Asian, African and South American countries acceptable to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime could be used for the mission, Fawzi said.
Additional Security Council approval will be required to increase the deployment to 250 observers, the ceiling Annan is seeking, he said.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had been unhappy with the initial Western-backed draft resolution, which included numerous demands on the Syrian government, including allowing the observers unimpeded freedom of movement and the right to interview any Syrian in private.
Those were dropped in the Russian version along with the Western call for condemnation of "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authoritiesā€¯. The Russians also watered down the West's "demand" that the Syrian government visibly demonstrate that it is fully implementing Annan's plan, changing it to a weaker "callā€¯.
"I'm not completely satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. But again, let's see what comes out as a result," Churkin told reporters late Friday. "We want it to be a vote which will keep the Security Council united, which is crucial."
Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, asked the 15-nation Security Council to approve sending a UN observer mission as soon as possible.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned on Friday against overly high expectations, given the small size of the initial team and the fact that it would not be able to be everywhere, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters on Friday that before any observers can be deployed, there would have to be a technical agreement on how the UN force will operate, Annan would have to make an independent report on the situation in Syria, and the Syrian government would have to approve the whole package.
In the first major test of the UN-brokered truce, thousands of Syrians poured into the streets on Friday for anti-government protests, activists said. Security forces responded by firing in the air and beating some protesters, but there was no immediate sign of widespread shelling, sniper attacks or other potential violations of the ceasefire.
Fawzi told reporters the ceasefire has been "relatively respected" despite government troops and heavy weapons still in cities and continuing abuses.
"We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm," Fawzi said. "We are thankful that there's no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees who are crossing the borders are also dropping."
Annan told the Security Council during a closed video briefing on Thursday he was "encouraged" at the start of a fragile cease-fire but said the Syrian government failed to keep its pledge to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns.
Fawzi quoted Annan as telling the council that "the continued presence of Syrian armed forces, including armour, in and around population centres, must end immediately. Violence in all its forms, including arbitrary arrests, torture and abductions, must stopā€¯.
Annan urged the council to demand that Syria pull back its soldiers and hardware, and both the Russian and Western drafts call for full implementation of this provision.
The original Western draft described the council as determined to consider "further measures" ā€” which could include sanctions that Syria's allies Russia and China have opposed ā€” if Syria does not follow through on its commitments. This language was weakened in the latest Russian and Western texts to say the council would consider "further stepsā€¯.
Annan's plan also calls for Syria to ensure freedom of movement for journalists. Fawzi said Syria's government provided Annan with a list of 53 journalists who have been given visas to enter the country. Annan got a letter days earlier, Fawzi said, listing 21 organisations with entry visas.
Fawzi insisted that the truce is a first step on a long road to peace.
"This is only the beginning of a long road toward reconciling and toward building the future that Syrians aspire to, where there are no detentions without cause, where law enforcement guarantees peace and security in the street ā€” not the military," he said.
Clashes between Syrian troops and opponents are "not unusualā€¯, he said. "Sometimes, in situations like this, the parties test each other."