For the first time, Moscow has joined other United Nations Security Council members in condemning the Syrian government for violence against civilians. It could signal a deeper shift in Russian foreign policy which, until now, has stubbornly refused to countenance any measures aimed at easing out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
At least 108 people, a third of them children, died in a weekend massacre in Houla in one of the worst violations of the six-week-old ceasefire authored by UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan and supported by Russia.
The Syrian government insists that it is not responsible for the mass killings, which it blames on "terrorists." The spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said today that most of the victims had been "executed" with knives and gunfire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meeting with his British counterpart yesterday, said there was no doubt that the Syrian government had used disproportionate force in a civilian area, and admitted that "Russia has (a) particular role in applying pressure" on Mr. Assad to adhere to Annan's peace plan.
"There can be no doubt that the authorities used artillery and tanks," in Houla, Mr. Lavrov said. "But guilt should be apportioned objectively… We are insisting on the carrying out of a probe into what happened in Houla. We need to understand how this happened to make sure it will never be repeated."
Other Russian officials gave credence to the theory that the massacre might have been carried out by pro-rebel forces as a "provocation" aimed at strengthening the case for foreign intervention to remove Assad from power.
"It's clear that both sides were responsible (for the massacre in Houla), because people were killed not only by heavy weapons but also with pistols and knives, which is not the army's way," says Georgy Mirsky, a researcher at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Lavrov said that, for now at least, Russia remains committed to Annan's faltering six-point plan, and reiterated Moscow's belief that some Western and Arab countries may be working to undermine it. "We support Kofi Annan's plan and everyone should do everything for this to succeed," he said. "We sense from our contacts that some other forces are not committed. There should no be external interference," in Syria.
But some Russian analysts say the mood in Moscow is shifting against Assad, and the day may soon come when the Kremlin will give its assent to stronger measures.
"It's clear now that the Assad regime is weakening," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The pressure on him will grow, until he's either beaten or runs away. Russia is sticking to its positions, but at the same time it has to show that it is understanding of the situation and flexible enough. The truth is that the Security Council matters more for Russia than Syria does."
Syria is a long-standing client state of the former Soviet Union and Russia, and a major importer of Russian arms. It's also host to a Russian naval supply center at Tartous on the Mediterranean coast.
"Assad suits us. What might happen to Russia-Syria relations if he were gone is anybody's guess. We could lose our only ally in the Middle East," says Pavel Gusterin, an expert in Arab Studies at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "But Lavrov carefully and delicately pointed out that supporting Assad as leader of Syria is not of principal importance to Russia, which I would take as a signal to Assad. If Moscow supports Assad to the bitter end, and he fails, then it would be a blow not only for him but for Russia as well."
Most Russian experts argue that, despite the outrage over military violence, there is no good way out in Syria, and the slender reed the Annan plan offers should be given greater support than it's getting in the West.
"Moscow still supports Assad and backs the Annan plan as the only realistic way to a settlement. The Western idea of a (Yemen-style) solution, which would ease Assad out peacefully with guarantees and immunity, is just not workable for Syria. Once Assad goes, the whole system will come tumbling down," Mr. Mirsky says.