MOSCOW, (Reuters) – A U.S. special envoy met Russian officials on Friday as part of Washington’s push for a political transition in Syria that would see President Bashar al-Assad leave power, but there was no sign of a thaw in Moscow’s resistance to such an approach.
Senior U.S. State Department official Fred Hof held talks on Friday with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov.
Both sides again endorsed U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan after the second reported massacre of civilians in two weeks deepened doubts that it can end violence in Syria. Hof made no comment to reporters outside the ministry building.
U.S. officials have suggested Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent Hof to Moscow in an effort to secure a transition strategy that the United States says must include Assad relinquishing power.
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the talks as “an exchange of opinions on ways to foster a peaceful resolution in Syria with an accent on mobilisation of international support in the interests of fulfilment of Annan’s plan by all sides”.
While the United States wants Russia to raise pressure on Assad, Moscow says Western and Arab nations must use their influence to push insurgents fighting for the Syrian leader’s downfall to halt violence and hold talks with the government.
Eager to maintain its firmest Middle East foothold and stop Washington and the West from pushing governments from power, Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad from coordinated condemnation and sanctions.
President Vladimir Putin says he is not on Assad’s side and Moscow says it would be open to his exit from power as long as it is a result of an inclusive political process among Syrians without outside interference.
Prospects for a political process appear increasingly slim, prompting Western states to redouble calls for Moscow to exert more pressure on Assad to end violence in which the United Nations says his forces have killed more than 10,000 people.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the reported killing of at least 78 villagers by Assad’s forces as “unspeakable barbarity” and warned civil war was imminent.
Annan acknowledged his U.N.-Arab League peace plan, which Russia has strongly backed, was not working and said there must be “consequences” for those who do not comply.
Russia, which helped win Assad’s nominal support for the peace plan, says the reported massacre in Hama province and the killings of 108 people late last month in the Houla region underscore the need to support Annan’s plan.
Bogdanov said on Friday the six-point plan could be adjusted to improve implementation but its core elements must remain. The plan, which demands an end to the violence, calls for a political process but includes no direct call for Assad’s exit.
Russia has resisted pressure to change its stance on Syria and has not joined other nations in blaming the killings squarely on the government, saying both sides had a hand in the Houla massacre. It has not assigned blame for the latest killings but said they were aimed at scuttling Annan’s plan.