MOSCOW — A Russian envoy told Syrian opposition members Monday that "leaders come and go," an apparent signal to President Bashar Assad that he cannot count on the longtime ally's unconditional support as he struggles to contain more than three months of protests demanding his ouster.
It remains to be seen, however, if Mikhail Margelov's comments indicate a change in Moscow's opposition to tough U.N. action on Syria.
"Leaders come and go, politicians come and go, social systems come and go, but for Russia there remains a single reliable and trusted friend: the Syrian people," Margelov told a Syrian delegation in Moscow, calling for an end to "any and all forms of violence."
The opposition estimates 1,400 people have been killed as Assad tries to crush a pro-democracy movement inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The regime disputes the opposition's death tolls, and says security forces have been the victims of "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators behind the unrest.
It is nearly impossible to independently verify the claims on either side, although witness accounts from thousands of refugees streaming out of Syria tell of a brutal government response to protests. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and restricts coverage by reporters inside the country.
The U.N. Security Council has yet to adopt a draft resolution initiated by France, Britain and Germany that would condemn Syria for its crackdown on protesters and demanding an immediate end to the violence. Russia and China — both veto-wielding members of the body — oppose the motion.
The situation in Libya, which threatens to become a protracted stalemate, has sapped some of the willingness to get involved in the Middle East's roiling conflicts.
Still, even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has taken a harder line on Assad as international pressure mounts for the Syrian leader to accept major political change.
"We need to apply pressure on the leadership of any country where massive unrest, and especially bloodshed, is happening," Putin said in Paris on June 21. "In the modern world it is impossible to use political instruments of 40 years ago," Putin said of the Syrians' tactics.
The leader of the Syrian delegation, Radwan Ziadeh, was satisfied with the Margelov meeting.
"This is exactly what we are looking to hear from the Russian officials," said Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian exile and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
"We call upon Russia to use its leverage on the Syrian regime to stop the killings done by the Syrian security apparatus," he said. Russia must send "a clear message that this is not acceptable."
A harder line from Russia is a blow to Syria, which relies heavily on Russian military equipment and has long-standing ties to Moscow. Syria was heavily dependent on economic and military aid from the old Soviet Union during the Cold War, sharply reduced after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In the mid-2000s, Putin was quoted as saying Russia would re-establish its place in the Mideast via "the Syria route" — that is, by strengthening ties with Damascus.
The trip to Moscow comes as Syria's opposition tries to form a more unified front to counter Assad. The president — and his father before him, the late President Hafez Assad — silenced, imprisoned or drove into exile anyone who dared criticize the ruling elite over the past four decades.Comment on this story
In an attempt to appease the protest movement, which Assad acknowledges has "legitimate demands for reform," the president allowed nearly 200 critics of the regime to meet Monday in the Syrian capital.
The group released a communique declaring support for a popular and peaceful uprising, and warned that the country might be destroyed otherwise.
But some activists complained the government-sanctioned gathering would be exploited to give legitimacy to the regime as it continues to kill protesters.
Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.