By Ray Fleming

IT may have seemed that little had changed in Syria yesterday as crowds poured out from Friday prayers at the mosques and demonstrations against al-Assad's regime began, just as they have done every Friday for nine months.

But in New York at the United Nations a change had taken place. After months spent opposing the idea of a Security Council resolution critical of Syria, the Russian delegation circulated a draft resolution which, although milder than previous Western drafts, did include a reference to “disproportionate use of force by the Syrian authorities”.

The wording of the Russian draft is initially less important than the fact that Moscow has apparently concluded it cannot continue to stand in the way of a critical resolution that has general support in the Security Council.

The reasons for this change of mind may range from anxiety that the possibility of a civil war is growing with the risk of wider unrest in the region to concern that this week's report on Syria by the UN Human Rights agency linked Russia's intransigence in the Security Council to the rising death toll in Syria's streets.

Russia has long been a strong supporter of Syria but it may have begun to recognise that its ally is now so isolated in the Arab world that to continue to back it may not be in its own best interests.

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