BERLIN – Russia wants to help U.N. envoy Kofi Annan achieve "positive results" and prevent an all-out civil war in Syria, President Vladimir Putin said in Germany on Friday.
Moscow has shielded Syria from U.N. action aimed at halting President Bashar Assad's deadly crackdown on an anti-government uprising. On his first trip abroad since returning to the presidency, Putin rejected assertions, however, that Moscow is propping up Assad's regime.
"We don't support any of the parties that are creating threats of a civil war," Putin told reporters after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Putin said Russia would remain in contact with Assad and the Syrian leadership, insisting that nothing could be imposed by force, but was vague about exactly what "political instruments" Russia might be prepared to use.
As he spoke in Berlin, Russian diplomats at the United Nations in Geneva resisted efforts to condemn Syria over last week's killing by pro-government forces of more than 100 civilians.
A majority of members in the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council spoke out in favor of a draft resolution blaming the Syrian government for the massacre. According to U.N. investigators, at least 49 children under the age of 10 were killed -- with entire families apparently executed in their homes.
The U.N.'s top human rights official told the meeting that countries should back calls for an independent probe into the killings in Houla as part of an effort to prevent an escalation of the conflict and spillover across the region.
"Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole, could be in grave danger," Navi Pillay told the 47-nation council in a speech read out on her behalf.
It is the fifth time that the Geneva-based council called an urgent meeting on Syria, something the country's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, said was a sign that some countries are trying to divide his country.
Al-Hamwi, too, condemned the massacre in Houla, but blamed it on "groups of armed terrorists" seeking to ignite sectarian strife.
A draft resolution proposed by Qatar, Turkey and the United States condemns the killings in Houla, calls for an independent outside investigation "with a view to hold to account those responsible for widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, including those violations that may amount to crimes against humanity."
The resolution also echoes a call by the U.N. rights chief for the powerful U.N. Security Council in New York to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
U.S. and European diplomats suggested that an expert panel already tasked by the council with investigating the situation in Syria could launch a probe specifically into what happened in Houla and hand its findings to the Security Council.
"We believe our role at the Human Rights Council is to provide the basis for a case that would be brought on crimes against humanity," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters in Geneva. "This would provide a basis for the Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC."
If the Security Council does take up the question of whether to refer Syria or individual members of the regime to the Hague-based tribunal, Russia would again be in a position to use its veto.
Rights groups stressed the importance of commissioning an independent investigation into the Houla killings and holding those responsible to account.
"There is no magic bullet to solve this crisis but Russia bears specific responsibility for making the Syrian Government stop the violations now," said Juliette de Rivero, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch.
Putin said he believed a political solution in Syria was possible. "It requires a certain professionalism and patience," he said.
"There are many interests at play in the conflict and one must find those areas where interests overlap, and then bring all the parties to one table."