RIMANEWS-Syria and the United Nations signed an agreement on Thursday on terms for hundreds of observers to monitor a ceasefire, but diplomatic wrangling still lies ahead to persuade the West the mission will have the clout needed to ensure peace.
An advance party of half a dozen U.N. observers are already in Syria observing a week-old truce, but the question of whether that can be expanded to a full-blown monitoring mission is up in the air, especially as a week-old ceasefire has yet to halt violence in the worst-hit parts of the country.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council - divided between Western countries that want to topple Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Russia and China which support him - must agree the proposal to send a larger observer force.
The council will meet on Thursday to receive a briefing from mediator Kofi Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno.
"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.
U.S. and European diplomats on the Council have suggested that Syria's lack of full compliance with a week-old ceasefire might make it difficult for them to support an expanded observer mission.
Russia and China will approve a mission only under a part of the U.N. charter that requires the consent of Assad's government, giving Damascus a veto over its mandate. Discussion has focused on a force of at most a few hundred people, a tiny fraction of the size of peacekeeping forces normally deployed to conflict zones.
In the first progress report since the Council passed a resolution on Saturday authorizing the initial deployment of observers, Secretary-General Ban ki-moon said Syria has not fully withdrawn troops and heavy weapons from towns, failing to send a "clear signal" about its commitment to peace.
On Wednesday, gunfire erupted close to the advance team of U.N. observers, who had been swarmed by anti-Assad protesters.
On Thursday the team went to a rural area near the town of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad began 13 months ago. Amateur video footage posted on the Internet showed the team's head, Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, wearing a U.N.-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 (al-Assad)," as Himmache, who must act as a neutral observer, looks ill at ease.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces were shooting in the town of Herak, in southern Syria, shortly after the U.N. team left the area on Thursday.
Ban had proposed an expanded mission of 300 personnel to monitor the shaky ceasefire. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the mission would require between 300 and 400 people to oversee the country properly.
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 or the Arab League.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Beijing was "seriously studying" the idea of participating.
RUSSIA SCOLDS "FRIENDS OF SYRIA"
U.S., Arab and European foreign ministers from an informal "Friends of Syria" group of states opposed to Assad are due to meet in Paris on Thursday evening to tighten pressure on Damascus.
Russia said it was not up to the self-appointed group to evaluate Syria's implementation of the peace plan.
"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 ... We cannot privatize (the plan) and we will not let it happen," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the solution for the crisis in Syria was the establishment of a humanitarian corridor that would allow the opposition to Assad to survive.
Assad "wants to wipe Homs off the map just like (former Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi wanted to destroy Benghazi", Sarkozy said. "We called this meeting to gather all those who cannot stand that a dictator is killing his people."
"The solution is the establishment of humanitarian corridors so that an opposition can exist in Syria," Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio. France has proposed such steps before but has not spelled out how they could be carried out without a U.N. mandate allowing force beyond what Assad would permit.
On Wednesday, 22 people were killed in Syria, including 13 civilians during shelling in Homs, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles information from anti-Assad activists. Syria's state news agency said 13 people were killed by "armed groups", including six law enforcement officials after a roadside bomb.
In Ban's report, the secretary-general expressed some hope that there may be a chance for progress on ending the conflict.
He said the advance team "enjoyed freedom of movement" in Deraa, but its initial request to visit Homs, a centre of the uprising against Assad, had been refused.
Activists posted footage on the internet of further shelling in Homs city on Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will attend the meeting in Paris, said on Wednesday that Syria was at a turning point.
"Either we succeed with ... the Annan plan with the help of monitors ... or Assad will squander his last chance before additional measures have to be considered," she said.
Two previous Friends of Syria meetings, in Tunisia and Turkey, produced more rhetoric than results, and it was not clear what Thursday's smaller gathering in France might deliver.
Clinton, as she has in the past, appeared to leave the door open to other nations arming Syrian rebels, something the United States has itself rejected, though it is giving the opposition communications and logistical assistance.
Washington and its Western allies have shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping force in Syria that might require 50,000 troops or more.
The Syria mission was negotiated by Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general now acting as an envoy of the United Nations and Arab League. Diplomats say Annan's main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria's supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.[ach/reuters]