MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will not oppose the departure of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad if that is the result of a dialogue between Syrians themselves and is not imposed from outside, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday.
Lavrov spoke one day after his deputies held consultations with U.S. special envoy Fred Hof, in Moscow to push for a political transition in Syria that would see Assad leave power.
"If the Syrians agree (about Assad's departure) between each other, we will only be happy to support such a solution," Lavrov told reporters. "But we believe it is unacceptable to impose the conditions for such a dialogue from outside."
Eager to maintain its firmest Middle East foothold and stop the West pushing governments from power, Russia has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad from coordinated condemnation and sanctions.
Moscow insists there must be no "preconditions" in any discussion of Syria's future, including the departure of Assad, an outcome which would suit many countries in the West as well as the many Sunni Muslim Arab states that dislike the Syiran government and its ally Iran.
Lavrov cited the power transition in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was eventually pushed out, saying that was a result of an internal process without any conditions being set by external parties.
Lavrov reiterated his call for an international conference in support of the envoy Kofi Annan's failing peace plan and said "there was no outright rejection" of this initiative from the United States expressed during the Moscow talks, despite Russia's recommendation that Iran take part.
"We want this event to be effective. In order to be effective all the sides with any influence on the sides in the Syrian conflicts should be represented there. Iran is one such country," Lavrov said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that it was "hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime's assault on its people.
Washington accuses Tehran of providing advice and material support to help Assad crush dissent, something Iran denies.
Two reported massacres in Syria in as many weeks have deepened doubts about a U.N.-backed peace plan and prompted some Western states to again threaten sanctions.
One of Lavrov's deputies, Gennady Gatilov, told the Interfax news agency earlier on Saturday that "introducing restrictive or forceful measures clearly will not foster (peace) and will only aggravate the already difficult atmosphere".
Lavrov repeated Russia's stance that Syrian opposition should also bear the blame for violence and accused unnamed "external players" for encouraging the opposition to keep fighting in order to provoke a military intervention.
Russia and China have twice vetoed Western-backed Security Council resolutions critical of Syria, whose security forces have killed at least 10,000 people, by a U.N. count, while losing more than 2,600 of their own, according to Damascus.
One of the resolutions they blocked, in February, would have backed an Arab League call for Assad to cede power.
Analysts say that if Moscow were to help engineer Assad's exit it would hope to retain influence in Syria.
Assad's government has bought billions of dollars worth of Russian weapons and hosts a Mediterranean logistical facility that is Russia's only permanent warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
Writing by Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Robin Pomeroy