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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with United Nations envoy Kofi Annan at the Kremlin in Moscow July 17, 2012.Ria Novosti/Reuters

As fighting raged close to downtown Damascus, threatening Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's vital stronghold in the heart of the capital, frantic last-minute diplomatic efforts were under way to broker a deal Wednesday at the United Nations that would avoid another Russian veto.

Still, hopes for a negotiated transfer of power – with Mr. al-Assad abandoning power and his clan's ruthless grip on Syria – remain slim as the nightmare of worsening violence spiraling into sectarian war among Syria's Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Alawites, Christians and Druze, engulfs the nation.

Major Western powers are backing a tough resolution – one armed with teeth under the UN Security Council's Chapter 7, which authorizes the use of force ranging from sanctions to blockages to air strikes, if the embattled President refuses to quit.

Russia, the Syrian regime's staunchest friend and long-time arms supplier, has vowed to block any Chapter 7 resolution, even as President Vladimir Putin has moved to distance himself as the Assad government increasingly resorts to unfettered violence including tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships to crush the uprising threatening to oust him.

Moscow's rival text urges a transition – without timeline – and includes no punitive action should Mr. al-Assad ignore it.

"If our partners decide to block our resolution no matter what, then the UN mission will not have a mandate and will have to leave Syria," warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia, like the other four permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, France, China and the United States – can veto any resolution.

In anticipation of another Russian veto or a toothless resolution decrying the violence but carrying no consequences, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed Moscow for defending the Assad regime. "The international community has been more than ready to impose all kinds of pressure on the Assad regime," she said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, we haven't been able to do that … because the Russians are very clear: They don't want to give any opening for force that could be used."

While the Obama administration has deplored Moscow's repeated vetoes blocking harsh measures against Mr. al-Assad, there is little enthusiasm among the Western powers for military intervention in Syria's civil war.

It would pose significant military and political risk – unlike Libya, which was conveniently located for air strikes and ruled by outlaw dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and where foreign intervention was unlikely to spark a wider war.

Some analysts find Western fuming over Moscow's vetoes a convenient cover for its preferred policy of staying on the sideline while the Syrian violence plays out.

"In the past, if the West has wanted to bomb countries, it has done so, without waiting for permission from the United Nations," Sergei Demidenko, an analyst with the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis think tank, told Agence France-Presse.

After meeting Tuesday with UN special envoy Kofi Annan, Mr. Putin hinted that compromise was possible. "We will do everything in our power to support your efforts," Mr. Putin told Mr. Annan.

Fifteen months after small, initially peaceful protests were brutally repressed, Syria is now fully engulfed in a civil war. More than 16,000 have been killed; tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

As fighting intensified in recent days, Iraq urged all of its citizens – hundreds of thousands had fled to Syria over the past decade to escape sectarian bloodshed at home – to return. Turkey reported more than 1,000 additional refugees fled Syria Monday, included dozens more defecting Syrian military personnel. And in Paris, President François Hollande confirmed a one-time member of Mr. al-Assad's tight inner circle, Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass, was in France.

Syria has already pulled some of its crack troops from the valley beneath the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where a cold peace has lasted for decades.

A top Israeli intelligence officer, Major-General Aviv Kochavi, warned Tuesday that Islamic militants may soon open a new front along the Syrian-Israeli border as Mr. al-Assad loses control of large sections of the country.

"The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that's a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria," he was reported to have told a parliamentary committee, according to legislators in the meeting.

With top officials, including diplomats and senior military officers, deserting the regime and being debriefed by Western intelligence agencies, rebel forces will soon have valuable information about regime weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Reports out of Damascus said fighting broke out in several central sections of the capital. There were unconfirmed claims that rebels downed a military helicopter.

Syria's Information Minister Omran Zoabi denied reports of insurgent gains close to the capital, saying Syrian forces had surrounded and defeated a handful of gunmen who had infiltrated the city.