Russia remained at loggerheads with the U.S. and its European allies ahead of a scheduled vote Wednesday afternoon on a new Syria resolution and there appeared to be little hope that the U.N.'s most powerful body would unite behind a plan to end the 17-month civil war in the Mideastern country.
The key stumbling block is the Western demand for a resolution threatening non-military sanctions and tied to Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict in Syria.
Russia is adamantly opposed to any mention of sanctions or Chapter 7. After Security Council consultations late Tuesday on a revised draft resolution pushed by Moscow, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin said these remain "red lines."
Russia has said it will veto any Chapter 7 resolution, but council diplomats said there is still a possibility of last-minute negotiations.
There has been a lot of diplomatic scrambling to try to get council unity, which would send a much stronger signal to Syria. International envoy Kofi Annan has been in Russia for two days of high-level meetings, including talks with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Annan told reporters in Moscow that he and Putin focused on "what measures need to be taken to end the violence and the killing and how we move on to the political transition," and he urged the council to try to find language "that will pull everybody together for us to move forward on this critical issue."
The mandate of the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria expires on Friday and the Security Council must decide by then whether to extend it.
The U.S. and its European allies contend that the unarmed observers were authorized for 90 days to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of Annan's six-point peace plan — and with violence dramatically escalating they insist that there must be consequences for non-compliance.
The Western draft would impose non-military sanctions against Assad's regime if it fails to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days — a key plank of the Annan plan.
"We're very open to the Russians and other partners on the Security Council engaging with us on the text which we have proposed," Britain's deputy ambassador Philip Parham said after Tuesday's closed meeting.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday after the Putin-Annan meeting that Moscow is ready to seek consensus in the Security Council, but gave no indication how it would resolve a disagreement over the Western draft.
"I don't see a reason that we couldn't agree in the Security Council. We are prepared for that," Lavrov said according to the Interfax news agency.
Moscow's proposed resolution calls for the "immediate implementation" of Annan's plan and guidelines for a political transition approved at a meeting in Geneva last month but makes no mention of sanctions.
There were no comments from Putin after the meeting, but at its opening he promised Russia would do all it could to support Annan's effort.
Russia and China incurred international criticism by twice vetoing U.N. resolutions to increase pressure on Assad.
Although Western nations appear to have little appetite for force, Russia fears a repeat of the NATO campaign in Libya and adamantly opposes any prospect of international intervention in the 16-month-old conflict.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted during a trip to Jordan on Tuesday that a Chapter 7 resolution is required to implement Annan's peace plan, calling the process the "best hope" for ending the civil war in Syria and urging Russia and China to get on board.
In Beijing, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sat down for talks Wednesday morning with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Neither mentioned Syria in their opening remarks in front of the media.
When Ban arrived Tuesday, he called for rapid, unified action by the Security Council on Syria.
A commentary that ran Tuesday in the official People's Daily newspaper strongly opposed using force against Syria — a sign that China may again block the Western-backed resolution. It said "a political solution is the only way out of the Syrian problem."
Hague cautioned that the situation in Syria "is so grave and unpredictable that I don't think any option should be ruled out for the future."
In New York, Syria's main opposition group urged Russia to support the Western resolution, saying it was the last chance "to breathe life" into Annan's peace plan.
Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian National Council spokeswoman, told reporters that if the Security Council fails to act, Syria's opposition will consider other options — which she did not disclose — to protect the Syrian people. "These are under consideration at the moment with friends of Syria" in the region and internationally, she said.
Kodmani noted that the Syrian people have been calling for a no-fly zone, safe zones for delivering humanitarian aid and the arming of the Free Syrian Army.
She said she told Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin at a meeting earlier Tuesday that a Russian veto of a resolution threatening sanctions would be a "blank check to continue the violence."