Both government forces and rebels were responsible for this weekend’s massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday.
“There can be no doubt that the authorities used artillery and tanks,” Lavrov said after talks with his U.K. counterpart William Hague in Moscow.
“[But] guilt should be apportioned objectively,” Russia’s top diplomat said. “It takes two to tango.”
Lavrov also said “dozens of players” were involved in the current violence in Syria.
At least 108 people, around a third of them children, were killed on Saturday in Houla, near the former rebel stronghold city of Homs, according to United Nations observers. The UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent, veto-wielding member, unanimously condemned the Syrian authorities on Sunday over what it says was “an outrageous” attack. It made no mention of rebel forces.
“We are insisting on the carrying out of a probe into what happened in Houla,” Lavrov went on. “We need to understand how this happened to make sure it will never be repeated.”
Russian deputy UN ambassador Alexander Pankin told journalists ahead of Hague’s visit that Moscow did not rule out that the killings in Houla were a “provocation” carried out by rebel forces ahead of a visit by UN peace envoy Kofi Annan to Syria on Tuesday. He also refused to rule out the participation of foreign special forces in the attack.
The Kremlin has opposed attempts to impose UN sanctions on its ally, Syria, where Russia maintains its only foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union, over what Western powers say is the brutal suppression of a now more-than-one-year uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow, which continues to arm Damascus, says proposed UN resolutions on the violence-stricken country betray a pro-rebel bias.
Russia has, however, given its full backing to UN envoy Kofi Annan’s faltering six-point peace plan for Syria and Lavrov reiterated on Monday that Damascus needed to show more decisiveness to end the violence in the Middle Eastern country.
Hague said that the U.K. accepted that rebel forces bore responsibility for some of the violence.
“We are not arguing that all violence in Syria is the responsibility of the Assad regime, although it has the primary responsibility for such violence,” he said.
Both Hague and Lavrov insisted that Annan’s peace plan was the only way forward.
“We are very much agreed that the Annan plan is the best hope for Syria,” Hague said, adding that the alternatives were ever increasing chaos in Syria, and a dissent closer and closer to all out civil war.”
Lavrov said that Russia was applying pressure “daily” on Syria, but that it believed certain other countries were not fully committed to Annan’s plan.
“Russia has particular role in applying pressure,” Lavrov said. “We sense from our contacts that some other forces are not committed. We support Kofi Annan’s plan and they should do everything for this to succeed…There should no be external interference.”
Moscow has condemned Western suggestions that regime change in Syria is the solution to the spiral of violence, and Hague was keen to stress on Monday that Assad’s immediate fate was not the main concern.
We have said all the way back from last August that finding a solution involves him standing aside,” Hague said. “But the important thing is that the Annan plan is pursued. That is now the urgent priority.”
And Lavrov said the main thing for Moscow was not who was in power in Syria, but a successful implementation of Annan’s plan.
“The main thing is stopping the violence, and to create a political dialogue among the Syrian people. Everything else is secondary,” he said. “And if we want to stop the violence, we have to work together with the regime and the opposition. Kofi Annan’s plan is about consensus.”
Hague and Lavrov’s talks came as Syrian opposition activists alleged that over 40 people, including women and children, had been killed in the city of Hams by government artillery attacks and shelling.
Over 9,000 people have been killed in clashes between the government and opposition forces in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to UN estimates.