RUSSIA has been issued an ultimatum to intervene in the Syrian crisis before it was too late, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague warning that the massacre of at least 108 people, including 32 young children in Houla, had taken the country to the brink of civil war.
Speaking shortly before boarding a flight to Moscow last night for meetings with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, he said that Russia now faced a stark choice between using its leverage with the Assad regime or risking it's last bastion of influence in the Middle East descending into chaos.
Urging Moscow to put its full weight behind the six-point United Nations plan for Syria brokered by the former secretary general Kofi Annan, he said: "The Russians have a great deal of leverage over the Syrian regime.
"We've had many differences of view over Russia at the Security Council, but Russia does support the Annan plan and so I hope Russia will redouble its efforts to get the Assad regime to implement that plan," he said.
"It's not in the interests of Russia, just as it's not in the interests of anybody in the world for Syria to descend in to an even bloodier situation and in to full scale civil war and that is now the danger."
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN cast doubt on the culpability of Syria’s government for a massacre of more than 100 people in the central town of Houla.
“We need to establish whether it was the Syrian authorities,” Igor Pankin said at the United Nations. “There are substantial grounds to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point blank distance.”
Mr Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, is due to arrive in Damascus on Monday morning for talks over the beleaguered Six-Point Plan to end the violence and begin a political process in Syria.
Mr Hague, who said he was "sickened" by the images from the massacre at Houla, has also called an emergency session of the UN Security Council and summoned Syria's most senior diplomat to the Foreign Office for an official dressing down. The council was due to meet on the issue last night.
The UK mission to Moscow came amid deepening international outrage over the massacre which the head of the UN observer mission in Syria, Maj-Gen Robert Mood, also warned would fan the flames of instability and "may lead the country to civil war".
As violence continued in Syria, the Houla massacre has already stretched the credibility of the UN mission in Syria, with the Free Syrian Army issuing a statement saying that the deal was "going to hell" unless there was concerted international intervention.
Before departing for Moscow, Mr Hague held talks with Kofi Annan, Mr Hague said there was a "good case" for increasing the size of the 300-strong UN observer mission, but stressed that time was now running out for the Six Point Plan, announced in April.
"I've discussed with him [Mr Annan] the urgency of getting a political process going in Syria which is his objective before time runs out," he added, "Time will run out before too long on that." As the groundswell of Western condemnation grew – Russia remained silent - Syria "categorically" denied responsibility for the killings at Houla blaming "terrorists" for the incident.
"Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said in Damascus, who claimed that Syria was being subjected to a "tsunami of lies".
A British diplomatic source dismissed the denials, describing them as a transparent and "concerning" attempt to "seek impunity and lay the blame on others".
Mr Hague said that it was still too early to discuss military or other interventions in Syria, and that for now all efforts were being focused on trying to get the Annan plan to stick – although acknowledging that failure would come with consequences.
"If we come to the point where the Annan plan has clearly failed, Britain will be arguing for a stronger response from the world, from the United Nations Security Council, increasing our support to the opposition, imposing further sanctions and measures on the Syrian regime," he said.
In Washington, the Obama administration condemned the Houla massacre as the work of the Assad regime, pledging that the "rule by murder" must come to an end, without specifying measures.
The White House is reported to be focusing on pressuring the newly re-election Russian president Vladimir Putin to back a deal that would ease out the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in a fix similar to that brokered in Yemen.
Under the deal, which White House officials said was under discussion, Mr Assad would leave office as the first step in a developing a political process, as happened with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
However both independent analysts and UK foreign office sources have expressed skepticism over whether such a deal can be replicated in Syria, a security state where Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect rules over a Sunni majority.