MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia amplified its call for an international meeting on Syria on Saturday, saying sanctions or military intervention would "only aggravate the already difficult atmosphere".
"Our logic is that it is not necessary now to apply additional pressure, to introduce sanctions or use the threat of force," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency.
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 President Bashar al-Assad from coordinated condemnation and sanctions.
Two reported massacres in Syria in as many weeks have deepened doubts a U.N.-backed peace plan can work and prompted some Western states to threaten sanctions.
"Introducing restrictive or forceful measures clearly will not foster (peace) and will only aggravate the already difficult atmosphere," Gatilov was quoted as saying.
Russia says a better way to make the peace plan work is to hold a meeting of nations and groups with influence on Assad's government or its foes, a proposal Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Wednesday.
Lavrov was to hold a news conference later on Saturday about the initiative which has already run into a snag in the form of U.S. opposition to include Iran.
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.
Gatilov said Iran had a "full right" to participate and that its influence on Syria meant it could play a "constructive role in seeking ways to resolve the Syrian conflict."
Gatilov said there was no "fundamental difference" between Russia's initiative and a proposal Annan has floated for a "contact group" on Syria that would also include Iran as well as other regional players.
Russia says it is not out to protect Assad but that his fate is up to Syrians themselves, not foreign countries or the U.N. Security Council, and that his exit cannot be a precondition for a political process in Syria.
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; Editing by Robin Pomeroy