UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday extending the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria for a final 30 days but leaving open the possibility of an extension if the Syrian government stops using heavy weapons and the civil war's level of violence is reduced.
The resolution gives a possible lifeline to the unarmed observers who were sent to Syria three months ago to monitor a cease-fire, which has never taken place, and the implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, which was been flouted by President Bashar Assad's government.
The council voted shortly after Russia's ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, said he believes Assad is ready to step down "in a civilized way." The Syrian government immediately denied it, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said his statements were taken out of context and have been "wrongly interpreted."
The mandate of the observer force had been set to expire Friday. The observers suspended patrols in the face of escalating violence.
The force's future had been left in limbo by the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a Western-backed U.N. resolution Thursday aimed at pressuring Assad's government to end the escalating civil war by threatening sanctions if Assad's troops and heavy weapons were not withdrawn from populated areas in 10 days.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had said he would veto the original British-drafted resolution on the observer mission and support a rival Pakistani text that would have extended the mission for 45 days, with the possibility of further renewals. But after closed-door consultations called by Pakistan, all 15 council members reached agreement on a revised British text.
The future of Assad has been a subject of intense debate, especially following this week's attack in Damascus that targeted his inner circle and killed his defense minister and the deputy defense minister, who was the president's brother-in-law.
Orlov, the Russian ambassador in Paris, said in an interview with Radio France Internationale that Assad's acceptance of an international agreement in June for a transition toward a more democratic regime, and his subsequent step of naming a representative to negotiate the transition, meant that he was prepared to give up leadership.
"Personally ... I think it will be difficult for him to stay in office, given everything that's happened," Orlov told RFI.
But in a subsequent interview with BFM TV, he backtracked on his personal assessment.
Asked if he thinks Assad's days are numbered, Orlov replied: "No, I don't think so. I say it's for Syrian people to determine that ... Is the regime coming to an end or not? It's not for me to say."
He also said he was misunderstood.
"If President Assad accepted this (agreement) that foresees a transition, it means that perhaps within himself he is ready to leave if that was the result of the negotiations. It's because of this that I called it a civilized departure," he told BFM.
Orlov noted in the original RFI interview that Assad accepted the final statement of the June 30 Geneva agreement for a transition "toward a more democratic regime" and then went the next step, naming a representative to negotiate the transition with the opposition. In essence, that meant that "he accepted to leave, but leave in a civilized way," the ambassador said.
Syrian TV quickly said the interview had been taken out of context.
Russian Embassy spokesman Sergei Parinov said the ambassador's statement was "incorrectly interpreted" by international media. Parinov told The Associated Press the ambassador just "restated" Russia's interpretation of Assad's response to the Geneva agreement.
Parinov said the ambassador's statement was not referring to any new information coming from the Assad regime on Friday.
The remarks by the ambassador appeared to be adding a new layer of interpretation to the Geneva agreement, which was based on a U.N.-brokered peace plan that Syria's president was party to. In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underlined at the time that the plan does not require Assad's ouster, saying there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
• Ganley reported from Paris.