The United Nations Security Council plans a vote today on sending observers to Syria to monitor a ceasefire that is being tested by nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
The UN's decision-making body will vote in New York on a resolution to deploy an advance team of as many as 30 UN observers, who were waiting on standby to board planes.
The 15- member body spent yesterday arguing behind closed doors over rival draft, as Russia clashed again with Western powers on how to tackle the longest of the Arab revolts.
While the ceasefire in Syria largely held after a truce took hold on the morning of April 12, at least 13 people died yesterday in clashes, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group.
"The situation in Syria is extremely tenuous right now," Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. "What you have at the moment appears to be a quiet more than the truce called for" by UN special envoy Kofi Annan in his six-point peace plan.
Before the ceasefire, the death toll often exceeded 100 a day, reaching 9,000 in the 13 months since the start of the uprising, according to the UN. A prolonged lull would allow unarmed monitors to be sent to the country, while failure of the ceasefire may encourage calls for international military intervention.
The US has begun sending promised non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, most of it medical and communications equipment, according to an administration official who discussed the shipments yesterday on condition of anonymity.
The supplies are going to non-violent, political groups based on what they said would help them organise their efforts and provide aid to civilians, and the aid is likely to increase, the official said.
At least one million people in Syria "remain in need of urgent humanitarian help," the UN's emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. She said it's "extremely important that negotiations to enable humanitarian organizations in Syria to deliver aid remain separate from other efforts to resolve the crisis."
Assad, 46, is fighting for the survival of his Alawite family's four-decade hold on power. While more than 70 percent of Syria's population is Sunni, Assad and the ruling elite are in a minority, belonging to an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that predominates in Iran and which stands to lose privileges should he fall.
Syria's Interior Ministry urged citizens who have fled their homes to escape "crimes by terrorist groups" to return, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said yesterday.
Russia, which has vetoed two draft resolutions seeking to hold Assad accountable, has a stake in the survival of a Soviet- era ally, selling the regime weapons during the uprising. Still, Moscow has leaned on the Syrian government to accept the terms of a ceasefire and let UN monitors into the country.
Russia's envoy to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters he wasn't "completely satisfied" with the outcome of negotiations at the world body yesterday. French Ambassador Gerard Araud said there still wasn't an agreement and described talks as "very tough."
"I don't want to predict" an outcome, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters. "We've been to this movie so many times."
The UN has had monitors and political officers in the Middle East since the 1940s as well as in other regions, the most recent a group of 180 observers sent to oversee the end of the civil war in Nepal.
A UN presence in Syria may involve 200 to 250 personnel trying to cover a much larger country, according to Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation.
"It will be very hard to establish a robust monitoring presence in Syria if violent incidents continue," Gowan said in an e-mail. "UN planners will be concerned about keeping their personnel safe."