Moscow still sees two problems of "crucial importance" with a draft U.N. resolution on the violence in Syria, Russia's foreign minister said Saturday amid Western attempts to head off a Russian veto in the Security Council.
Sergey Lavrov said the resolution makes too few demands of armed groups opposing President Bashar Assad's regime. He also said Moscow remains concerned about whether it prejudges the outcome of a national dialogue among political forces in Syria.
Lavrov's comments at the Munich Security Conference came hours before the U.N. Security Council is expected to meet to consider the resolution, and shortly before he met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the sidelines of the conference.
Asked afterward whether she had made progress on the resolution at the meeting, Clinton replied only: "We're working on it." A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the diplomacy, said they had a "very vigorous discussion."
Both agreed that the situation on the ground is urgent, and Clinton made clear the U.S. feels strongly that the Security Council should vote Saturday, the official said, adding that Washington still hopes for a Russian "yes" vote.
Following the talks, Lavrov said it was still possible to reach consensus if the West shows a constructive approach.
He was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Moscow amendments to the Western-backed resolution weren't something "excessive." He urged the West to accommodate Russian concerns to reach a compromise.
Lavrov was quoted as saying that he and Russia's foreign intelligence chief, Mikhail Fradkov, will head to Damascus next Tuesday for a meeting with Assad. He said they will make the trip on orders from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and wouldn't give any further details.
Russia has opposed any U.N. call for regime change or a military intervention in Syria, its last remaining ally in the region.
The latest version of the resolution resolves "quite a number of things which were important to us," Lavrov said. "It does not speak about any sanctions, it doesn't leave any loophole for outside interference."
He added, however, that there were the two issues which "are of crucial importance and they must be modified if a resolution is to be adopted."
He expressed concern about "an absolutely unrealistic provision expecting that the government of Syria would withdraw from the cities and towns exactly at the time when the armed groups are taking over the quarters of those cities and towns."
"We are not friends or allies of President Assad," he said. "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the Security Council, and the Security Council by definition does not engage in domestic affairs of member states."
"While we're all concerned with the rule of law and human rights and democracy, let's not forget that rule of law must prevail in international relations as well," he said. "When we see a veto, it's the (U.N.) charter at work."
In an interview broadcast earlier Saturday on Russian state television, Lavrov delivered a blunt warning that Moscow is prepared to use its veto power.
He said Moscow had submitted its amendments to the Western-backed draft. He said that Russia hopes that "bias will not prevail over common sense."
"If they want another scandal at the U.N. Security Council, we wouldn't be able to stop them," Lavrov said, voicing hope that Washington wouldn't put the draft to vote.
Russia and China have blocked previous Western attempts to impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime over its crackdown on protests. The U.N. has said that more than 5,400 people have been killed in violence since March. Hundreds more have been killed since that tally was announced, and activists say 200 died in the city of Homs on Saturday.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France, a firm backer of U.N. action and also a permanent Security Council member, said that "this unleashing of violence underlines the urgency that the U.N. Security Council must break its silence to denounce the authors of this crime."
"The international community must recognize and support the right of the Syrian people to freedom, to security and to the choice of its political future," Juppe said. "Those who block the adoption of such a resolution are taking a grave historical responsibility."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for the Security Council to "take a clear position in the face of the civilian deaths."
"The environment of conflict would increase if the Syrian administration were to believe that the cycle of hundreds of deaths can continue and that the U.N. will take no position against this," the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.
The U.S. and its partners have ruled out military action but want the U.N. body to endorse an Arab League plan that calls on Assad to hand power over to Syria's vice president.
Clinton spoke with Lavrov by phone on Friday. Before he spoke on Saturday, she told the conference she was hopeful that the U.N. would be able to come to an agreement later in the day.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, America and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," she said.
"We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time in New York the Security Council will express the will of the international community."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Associated Press that the Western alliance is following the situation closely but has "no intention whatsoever to interfere with the situation in Syria."
"Obviously I strongly condemn the security forces' crackdown on demonstrators in Syria, and if an international political and diplomatic pressure can facilitate a peaceful solution to the problems in Syria, I would welcome that," Fogh Rasmussen said on the sidelines of the conference.
Matthew Lee and David Rising in Munich, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.