U.S. State Department officials met with Russian Foreign Ministry diplomats in Moscow on Friday to try to hammer out a common position on the escalating crisis in Syria.
“A thorough exchange of opinions on methods of promoting a peaceful resolution in Syria took place,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said later in a statement. “The practical aspects of the Russian proposal to call an urgent international conference on Syria were also discussed.”
Washington’s point man on Syria, Fredrick Hof, had been expected to pressure Russia to take a harder line against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the meeting. Western leaders have called repeatedly in recent weeks for Assad to stand down as leader of the troubled Middle East country.
Russia – along with China – has twice vetoed UN resolutions against Damascus over what it says is a pro-rebel bias. Moscow has, however, fully backed UN envoy Kofi Annan’s faltering peace plan for Syria.
The talks came two days after Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov dropped the strongest hint yet that Moscow may be coming round to the West’s view that Assad’s departure is the only solution to the 15-months of bloodshed that the United Nations says has so far claimed at least 9,000 lives.
“We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power,” Gatilov told journalists on Wednesday. But Russia continues to insist it will not sanction UN military intervention against Syria, the Kremlin’s sole remaining ally in the Arab world.
The talks came after the revelation of a fresh massacre in Syria, just over two weeks after scores of women and children were murdered in the village of Houla by what the UN says were pro-Assad militia fighters.
And eyewitnesses quoted by international media such as British newspaper The Guardian also said fighters loyal to Assad were responsible for the brutal murders of dozens of people, again including many women and children, in Syria’s central Hama province on Wednesday.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said after the killings that the Assad regime had “lost its fundamental humanity.”
The massacre also looked like spelling the end of Annan’s six-point peace plan. Rebels announced earlier this week that they were pulling out of a truce stipulated by the plan “to protect our people.”
The Syrian authorities have said both massacres were carried out by “terrorists.”
Russia has said the murders in both regions were a “provocation.” But while it said it suspected rebel forces of having carried out many of the killings in Houla on May 25, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said only on Thursday that the latest massacre was aimed at “undermining the plan of Kofi Annan.”
The crisis in Syria began last March with a series of peaceful demonstrations against the 11-year-rule of Assad, but quickly descended into violence. And the latest massacres have brought closer the specter of an all-out sectarian conflict between the ruling Alawite minority and the Sunni Muslim majority. Assad and key government and security officials are members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the dominant religion in neighboring Iran.