- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Tuesday said it’s ready to support a U.N. resolution endorsing former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for settling the Syrian crisis, signaling it is prepared to raise the pressure on its old ally.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that the resolution shouldn’t turn into an ultimatum to the Syrian government, setting the stage for tough bargaining over the wording of the document at the U.N. Security Council.

But Mr. Lavrov’s statement appeared to indicate growing impatience with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia and China twice have shielded Mr. Assad’s regime from the U.N. sanctions over its yearlong crackdown on protesters, in which more than 8,000 have died. But the Kremlin has also offered strong support to Mr. Annan, who is joint U.N. and Arab League special envoy.

Mr. Annan met twice with Mr. Assad earlier this month and made proposals to end the bloodshed, which haven’t yet been made public. Mr. Lavrov said that Mr. Annan’s proposals now should be unveiled, adding that Moscow stands ready to back a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting it.

“The Security Council should support them not as an ultimatum, but as a basis for the continuing efforts by Kofi Annan aimed at reaching accord between all the Syrians, the government and all opposition groups on all key issues, such as humanitarian corridors, halting hostilities by all parties, the beginning of a political dialogue and offering access to the media,” Mr. Lavrov said at a news conference following talks in Moscow with his Lebanese counterpart.

Mr. Lavrov said over the weekend that Mr. Annan’s plan doesn’t contain a demand for Mr. Assad to step down. On Tuesday, he reaffirmed Russia’s call for a simultaneous cease-fire by the government and the opposition forces.

MR. Lavrov also said that a Russian navy oil tanker anchored at the Syrian port of Tartus is on a mission to assist Russian naval ships on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. He scoffed at media reports alleging a Russian military buildup in Syria, saying that the group of servicemen on board the tanker is intended to protect it from pirates in the waters off Africa’s coast.

Mr. Lavrov’s statement followed Moscow’s strong call on the Syrian government to open humanitarian corridors that would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to treat the victims of the fighting. Moscow also urged Damascus to grant the Red Cross access to jailed protesters.

While Russia previously backed the Red Cross’ call for a cease-fire, but Monday’s statement from the Foreign Ministry that followed Mr. Lavrov’s talks with the ICRC chief was worded more strongly than the previous ones.

Speaking before the Russian parliament last week, Mr. Lavrov criticized Mr. Assad for being to slow to implement long-needed reforms and warned that the conflict in the Arab state could spiral out of control. He also complained in a weekend interview with state television about the “unproportional” use of force by the government troops and said that Moscow disagrees with many of the decisions made by the Syrian leadership.

“We are supporting the need to start a political process, and to do that, it’s necessary to have a cease-fire first,” Mr. Lavrov said. “Russia will do everything for that, irrespective of the decisions made by the Syrian government. We disagree with many of those, by the way.”