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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Nears UN Deal on Syria

Ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting on Monday, Russian envoys said they would oppose the threat of sanctions against Syria and warned against politicizing a UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

But they said Russia would not oppose a tough resolution demanding that Syria cooperate with the investigation when it is put before a ministerial meeting of the 15-member council. It was not clear how far Moscow would go to keep any mention of sanctions out of the resolution, while China, another veto-wielding country, also said it would not oppose the resolution.

The Foreign Ministry called Saturday for Syria to cooperate with investigators following a UN report that linked top Syrian officials to Hariri's killing.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Andrei Denisov said that talks were "on the right track" and that Moscow was not considering a veto.

He reiterated, however, that Moscow opposed sanctions being mentioned in the text. "We don't like it," he said. "We feel uncomfortable with that mention, and our perception is that it should be deleted."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told reporters that there was "unanimous support for a very strong, very clear signal, and we're just down now to a very few fine points."

Speaking after council ambassadors reviewed a revised text, Bolton said the resolution had the nine "yes" votes required for adoption and would likely have more by the time of the vote. "I don't foresee a veto," he said. Envoys for Britain and France also predicted the resolution would pass without a veto from Russia or China, the other permanent Security Council members.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was due to have dinner with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on Sunday before heading to the Security Council in New York on Monday.

A strongly worded draft resolution, submitted by the United States, Britain and France on Thursday called on Syria to detain and hand over any official or civilian whom the UN inquiry might consider a suspect in the Feb. 14 killing of Hariri and 22 other people by a Beirut car bomb. It also demanded that Damascus allow individuals to be questioned outside the country and without Syrian officials present.

Bolton said that Syrian President Bashar Assad could be among those summoned for questioning by investigators.

According to the text of the draft resolution, if Syria refused to cooperate, the Security Council would consider imposing economic sanctions. Anyone named by the UN as a suspect would face a travel ban and assets freeze.

In his report, chief UN investigator Detlev Mehlis said that Syrian officials had made false statements, prevented investigators from accessing evidence and, in the case of Assad, refused to talk to investigators.

The report said that Hariri's killing could not have taken place without the approval of Syrian security officials.

"Sanctions on trips by certain persons and freezes on their bank accounts without mentioning their names goes too far," Lavrov said Saturday, Itar-Tass reported.

"As a matter of fact, this would be tantamount to sanctions on suspects before trial. If some concrete facts are named, Russia will be prepared to examine them, but it will not support carte blanche."

In a statement Saturday, the Foreign Ministry said: "One should not rush to hasty conclusions that could create additional tensions in the region. ... Only a court can determine who is guilty. All the parties, including Syria, must provide maximum assistance to the commission and cooperate honestly with it."

Last week, in an apparent effort to secure Russian support, Assad called President Vladimir Putin by telephone.

Putin praised Syria's readiness to cooperate with the UN investigation and called on world leaders "not to allow new hotbeds of tension in the region," the Kremlin press service said.

If the United States, Britain and France insist on including sanctions in the resolution, Russia will have to swallow its pride and negotiate how tough they will be, said Irina Zviagelskaya, a Middle East expert with the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think tank.

"Despite Syria being Russia's main ally in the region, Moscow is not ready to stand up to the UN commission," she said.

"The era of spectacular diplomatic shows of protest has long gone for Russia."

She said that widespread international support for the resolution limited Russia's room for maneuver.

On Friday, the Russia joined with the United States, the UN and the European Union in demanding Syria close the offices of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in Damascus and prevent it using Syrian territory for planning terrorist attacks.

The demand was announced after Rice spoke for about half an hour by telephone with Lavrov, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and European diplomats Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The demand appeared to undermine Russia's long-standing support for Syria. Earlier this year, Moscow wrote off almost 80 percent of Syria's $13.4 billion Soviet-era debts for industrial and defense infrastructure.

Alexander Filonik, a Middle East analyst with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that with Russia seeking international support for its own war on terror, "it cannot speak out strongly in defense of a country accused of supporting terrorists."

Filonik said that Russia's best chance to head off sanctions was to point out weaknesses in the UN investigation, which could be many, given the difficulty in obtaining hard evidence.