UNITED NATIONS – For the first time since the Syrian conflict began more than a year ago, the U.N. Security Council on Saturday united behind a legally binding resolution calling for violence to end immediately and peace talks to begin.
The resolution authorized the deployment of the first wave of U.N. military observers to monitor a fragile cease-fire between the Syrian government and opposition fighters.
It also called for "the urgent, comprehensive, and immediate implementation" of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.
Russia and China vetoed two previous resolutions that would have condemned Syrian President Bashar Assad's government for its bloody crackdown on protesters, calling them unbalanced because they demanded that the government stop attacks, but not the opposition. Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, accused Western nations of seeking regime change.
The cease-fire, which formally took effect Thursday, is at the center of Annan's peace plan, which is aimed at ending 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.
But scattered violence continued on Saturday, sparking concern among council members.
"We hope that in the immediate term, this will open the way to a cessation of brutal violence, and we hope that we'll be able to say to the Syrian people that the time of indiscriminate violence is finally behind it," said France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud.
Still, Saturday's attacks on the key city of Homs "lead to some doubts about the reality of the commitment of the Syrian regime," Araud said.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called the government attacks in Homs a violation of the cease-fire.
The resolution calls on both sides to immediately "cease all armed violence in all its forms" and condemns "the widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian authorities, as well as any human rights abuses by armed groups."
Annan told the council Thursday that Syria failed to keep a commitment to pull troops and heavy weapons out of cities and towns, and the resolution calls on Assad's government to "visibly" implement this pledge.
The resolution calls 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 whether there has been "a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties."
The council said it intends to immediately establish a larger U.N. supervision mission after consultations between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Syrian government.
Deployment of a larger force will be "subject to a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties."
Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, has said that Annan — who is an envoy on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League — envisions a mission with about 250 observers. Troops already in the region from Asian, African and South American countries acceptable to Assad's regime could be used for the mission, he said.
Annan called for speedy deployment of U.N. monitors and Fawzi told a news conference in Geneva on Friday that an advance team of "around 10 or 12" observers, that could quickly be increased to 30, was "standing by to board planes and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible" once the Security Council approved their deployment.
The resolution calls on the Syrian government to ensure "full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access" for the advance team and the larger mission that will follow, and allow the observers "freely and privately to communicate with individuals throughout Syria without retaliation against any person as a result of interaction with the mission."
In the debate on the resolution adopted Saturday, Russia submitted a rival text to the U.S. and Western-backed draft eliminating those assurances, and raised questions Friday evening about the final draft, which kept them. But Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters before Saturday's vote that Moscow "was satisfied" and would vote "yes."
Churkin told the council after the vote that the original resolution is "now more balanced."
"Now we are at an extremely critical juncture," he said, "All parties must stop" the violence.
"There have been too many casualties, too much suffering ... with too many destructive consequences if it ratchets up," not only for Syria but for the region, Churkin warned.
The original Western draft described the council as determined to consider "further measures" — which could include sanctions that Syria's allies Russia and China have opposed — if Syria does not follow through on its commitments. This language was weakened in the final resolution to say the council would consider "further steps."
The resolution was sponsored by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Colombia and Morocco, the Arab representative on the 15-member council.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters Friday that before any observers can be deployed, there would have to be a technical agreement on how the U.N. 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.