Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has warned Damascus that mediation on Syria's crisis by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan could be the last opportunity to avoid a protracted conflict.
Medvedev made the remarks in Moscow on March 25 after talks with Annan on how to reduce violence in Syria and allow the disbursement of humanitarian aid to the needy.
"This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a long-lasting and bloody civil war," he said, adding that his government would provide Annan with "any help needed on any level and in various directions to the extent that Russia is capable."
Annan, for his part, welcomed Medvedev's remarks -- highlighting that the goals of his mission include putting an end to fighting and allowing humanitarian aid to reach those who need it.
Annan also indicated that he hoped Syria would "embark on a political process that will lead to a peaceful settlement."
Annan then said at the airport before his departure from Russia on March 26 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government cannot resist the "winds of transformation," adding that the crisis cannot be allowed to "drag on." He said is too early to introduce a time line for a peaceful solution.
Annan was in Moscow to seek Russian backing for his efforts to secure a cease-fire in Syria between government troops and opposition fighters.
The former UN secretary-general is visiting Russia and China -- the two powers closest to Assad as he seeks to crush an insurgency and silence protests in which the United Nations says his forces have killed more than 8,000 civilians.
Russia and China have shielded Damascus from UN Security Council condemnation by vetoing two resolutions in six months, including one on February 4 that would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to step aside.
But they sent a warning signal to Assad last week by approving a Security Council statement backing Annan's mission and warning that world powers could take further action if the killing does not stop soon.
Largely to ensure Russian support, the statement included no firm deadline for the implementation of its demands, potentially allowing Assad to play for time. It also included no direct call for Assad to cede power, which Russia would also have opposed.
Russia has voiced enthusiastic support for Annan's six-point peace plan aimed at ending the violence, securing humanitarian aid, and launching political dialogue between the government and opposition groups.
But Moscow, which wants a strong role in diplomacy and is trying to avoid losing its firmest foothold in the Middle East, is at odds with Western nations over blame for the bloodshed and what must be done to stop it.
On March 23, Russia and China voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning what it called "sharply escalating" violations by Syrian forces.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the draft was biased, "accusing only the Syrian government of violence [and] making no demands of armed opposition groups."
With ties dating back to the Soviet era, Syria has bought billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosts Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Syrian Forces 'Using Civilians As Human Shields'
In related news, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Syrian government forces of using civilians as human shields during recent military operations.
The international watchdog said on March 25 that the army and pro-regime gunmen forced residents to march in front of them as they advanced on opposition-held areas in the northern Idlib Province.
HRW emergencies researcher Ole Solvang said in a statement that "by using civilians as human shields, the Syrian Army is showing blatant disregard for their safety."
Syria has been trying to put down a yearlong uprising.
The United Nations estimates more than 8,000 people have been killed in the crackdown.
With AFP, AP, and Reuters reporting