Beirut - Syria and the United Nations signed an agreement on Thursday on terms for hundreds of observers to monitor a ceasefire, but fierce diplomatic wrangling lies ahead to persuade the West the mission can have the authority and power to ensure peace.
A handful of UN observers are already in Syria monitoring a week-old truce that has failed to stop bloodshed. The question of whether the mission can expand while violence continues is up in the air. A crowd mobbed the head of the advance party on Thursday, some demanding the death of President Bashar al-Assad.
The UN Security Council - divided between Western countries that want to topple Assad and Russia and China, which support him - must agree the proposal to send a larger observer force. Russia made clear it wants the 15-member council to move now to expand the small mission, while the West is hesitating.
Senior officials from France, the United States, Britain and other Western states met in Paris with Middle East countries including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They agreed the truce was the "last hope" of avoiding an all-out civil war. But Russia snubbed an invitation and derided the "Friends of Syria" meeting.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the group in Paris that they should push for a Security Council resolution to impose UN sanctions on Assad if he blocked an adequate peace monitoring mission. She said Russia, while still likely to veto such a measure now, might support one if violence went on.
In the first progress report since the council authorised the arrival of the initial observers on Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Syria had not fully withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from towns as agreed, failing to send a "clear signal" about its commitment to peace. He also recommended raising the number of observers to up to 300.
On Thursday, the Security Council was briefed by mediator Kofi Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno. According to council diplomats, Guehenno acknowledged risks of deploying unarmed observers while violence persists, but said their presence could help by changing the political dynamics on the ground.
This view was shared by Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who said "we need to respond to (Ban's) request, to his proposal to authorise the full-fledged monitoring mission."
"For a cessation of violence to be firmed up, the further deployment of the monitoring mission could play a very important role," he said.
US Ambassador Susan Rice, however, said some countries had concerns about the fact that Damascus had not ended the violence and had not granted the observers full freedom of movement.
Assad's opponents fear that a small observer mission with a weak mandate would act as little more than a fig leaf for the government, blocking more robust intervention to halt a 13-month crackdown on cities that have risen up against Assad.
But the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, welcomed the observers' mission and said in a statement that more monitors must be deployed to serve as witnesses.
"Their presence allows the civilian population to reassert its right to peaceful demonstration," the group said.
US and European diplomats on the council have suggested Syria's lack of full compliance with the ceasefire might make it hard for them to back an expanded mission. Russia and China will approve a mission only under a part of the UN charter that gives Assad's government a veto over the observers' mandate.
Discussion has focused on a force of at most a few hundred people, a tiny fraction of the size of peacekeeping forces have normally deployed to war zones.
"This preliminary agreement ... aims to facilitate the task of the observers within the framework of Syrian sovereignty," a statement from the Syrian Foreign Ministry said.
The UN advance team in Syria has already had a taste of the unrest. On Wednesday, gunfire erupted close to the observers, who had been swarmed by anti-Assad protesters near Damascus.
On Thursday, the team went to a rural area near the town of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad began. Amateur video footage posted on the Internet showed the team's head, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, wearing a UN-style turquoise bullet-proof vest as he walks through a crowd of protesters.
A demonstrator wraps his arm around Himmiche and shouts: "The people want the execution of Bashar." Himmiche, who must act as a neutral observer, looks ill at ease.
The United Nations estimates Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the uprising. Syria says foreign-backed militants have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and police.
The last mission by outside monitors to observe a peace plan in Syria, sent by the Arab League, collapsed in failure in January after just a month. That team said it could do little as long as Assad's forces controlled its movements.
Ban has asked for any new UN mission to have its own aircraft so it can travel independently, but Syria says it will provide transport. Ban told reporters UN aircraft were not covered in the preliminary deal and were still being discussed.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces opened fire in the town of Herak, in southern Syria, shortly after the UN team left the area on Thursday.
It added that six people had been killed around Syria on Thursday, including two during Army shelling in Homs.
Regarding Ban's recommendation for 300 observers, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said 250 was a "reasonable number", adding they should be from countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa - all more sympathetic to Damascus than are the West and the Arab League.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Beijing was "seriously studying" participating.
Russia scolds 'Friends of Syria'
The informal "Friends of Syria" group said in a statement in Paris: "Every day that passes means dozens of new Syrian civilian deaths.â
"It is not time to prevaricate. It is time to act... Though fragile, the Annan mission represents a last hope."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the meeting: "We cannot wait, time is short ... The observers must be deployed fast and must be able to act without obstacles."
Hillary told the meeting that the Security Council should adopt "travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan."
Russia, angered by a UN resolution that led to war in Libya last year, opposes sanctions and says the West and Arab powers are failing to give due weight to Assad's argument that he is fighting Islamist militants.
"When the so-called Syrian group of friends meet and somebody says 'Now we'll assess how Assad implements Kofi Annan's plan', it is a wrong attempt," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a NATO meeting in Brussels.
"We cannot privatise (the plan) and we will not let it happen."
Hillary said of her talks with Lavrov in Brussels: "He was, as usual, very intent upon laying responsibility on all sides, and in particular on the opposition. But he also has recognised that we are not in a static situation but a deteriorating one."
Western powers have little appetite for Libya-style military intervention in Syria.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing the first round of an uphill re-election battle on Sunday, said the solution for the crisis in Syria would be to set up a humanitarian corridor that would allow the opposition to survive. Assad "wants to wipe Homs off the map just like Gaddafi wanted to destroy Benghazi", said Sarkozy, whose lead in backing Libya's rebels against Muammar Gaddafi last year won him praise at home and abroad. "We called this meeting to gather all those who cannot stand that a dictator is killing his people."