MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister urged Syria to support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peacemaking efforts "without delay" in comments published on Saturday, adopting an unusually firm tone with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia disagrees with many of the decisions Assad's government has made in a year of bloodshed, Sergei Lavrov told state television in an interview, according to a transcript posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
Lavrov's comments did not signal a shift in Russia's stance, but suggested Moscow wants the world to know it is motivated by the urgent need to end the violence in Syria rather than by the desire to prop up a longtime ally.
Russia, with China, on February 4 vetoed a Western-Arab draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the government for violence the United Nations says has killed more than 8,000 civilians and backed a call for Assad to step aside.
Russia has vocally supported a mission by Annan, who met with Assad last weekend as part of a push for a ceasefire, the deployment of monitors and political dialogue between the government and opposition.
"We believe the Syrian government should quickly, without delay, support (Annan's) approaches," Lavrov said. "We will expect the same from the armed and political opposition."
"Only by receiving agreement in principle with what (Annan) is promoting in his contacts with the Syrians can the process of a truce begin - and after that the start of a Syrian dialogue."
Annan suggested in talks with Security Council members on Friday that Damascus' response to his six-point peace proposal had been disappointing so far, but his team was still talking with Syria's government, an envoy said.
Russia says government forces and armed opponents must cease fire simultaneously, the United States, Gulf Arabs and Europeans have demanded that Assad and his much stronger forces must make the first move.
Russia also says a Syrian political dialogue must have no preconditions or predetermined outcome, opposing calls by the West for Assad to cede power and criticizing opposition groups that say they will not negotiate with him.
Russia and China have said they believe Western and Gulf Arab countries are seeking Libya-style regime change in Syria.
Facing condemnation from the West and some Arab states for blocking action in the Security Council and continuing to sell arms to Syria, however, Moscow has been at pains to say it used its veto to protect a sovereign state from outside interference.
"I repeat, we do not support the Syrian government. We support the need to start a political process. To do that it is first necessary to cease fire," Lavrov said.
"The Russian side will do all it can for that, regardless of the decisions the Syrian government makes. With many of which, by the way, we do not agree."
Assad has given Moscow its strongest foothold in the Middle East, buying billions of dollars worth of Russian arms and hosting a Mediterranean maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.