PARIS (Reuters) - France’s new president, Francois Hollande, failed to win the backing of Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday for tougher U.N. sanctions aimed at ending violence in Syria.
Outrage at last week’s mass killings in the Syrian town of Houla prompted France to join several Western nations in stepping up pressure on Syria by expelling senior diplomats and calling on Russia to allow tougher action by the U.N. Security Council.
Ahead of Friday’s talks in Paris, Hollande said he would use his first meeting with the newly elected Russian president to press Moscow, a staunch Syrian ally, to back a Security Council resolution including sanctions on Damascus.
“No solution to this crisis is possible without the departure of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” Hollande told a joint news conference. “I believe that more sanctions are an essential part of a political solution.”
However, Russia remains steadfastly opposed to any plan that calls for Assad to step down or be removed.
Putin said the ousting of leaders did not necessarily lead to peace. He cited the case of Libya, where Moscow believes it was tricked by the West into supporting military intervention to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
“Has it become more safe there? Where are we moving? Is there an answer?” he said, looking a little weary from his first foreign trip since his election.
“We are not for Assad, not for his opposition, we want to reach a situation where violence ends and a large-scale civil war is averted,” he said, dismissing the idea that Russia had any special economic or military interest at stake in Syria.
Putin also said that “sanctions don’t always work”.
Warning there was a real risk of civil war and a regional conflict, Putin said it was “counterproductive” to declare the peace mission of U.N./Arab League envoy Kofi Annan a failure, but declined to say how long it should be given to work.
Annan on Friday voiced his frustration at the continuing violence in Syria after the massacre last week of more than 100 mostly civilians in the town of Houla, which the United Nations said appeared to have been the work of the Syrian army and pro-Assad militiamen. Damascus blamed the atrocity on the rebels.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday backed the Syrian government’s assertion that the massacre was the work of anti-government forces intent on undermining peace efforts.
However, Putin took a different line, appearing to concede that government forces had at least played a part in killing civilians, but saying that the rebels were guilty of similar acts.
“How many peaceful civilians were killed by the opposite side? Did you count? The count goes into the hundreds there too. Our goal is make peace between the sides of the conflict.”
Putin repeated Russia’s demand for a legally binding guarantee that a NATO missile defense system would not undermine his country’s security, suggesting verbal assurances were not enough because the West had deceived Moscow in the past.
“They promised us they would not expand NATO, then they promised not to deploy bases, but NATO is expanding and moving east and bases are springing up like mushrooms,” he said.
Reporting By John Irish and Gleb Bryanski; writing by Daniel Flynn