Russia on Wednesday criticised President Bashar al-Assad for his "big delay" in implementing reforms, saying Damascus risked escalating the Syria crisis by failing to take Moscow's advice.
In a rare public rebuke from Moscow to the Syrian leader, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Assad of "inertia" and said Russia's hugely controversial policy on Syria was not aimed at defending his regime.
But he also offered little hint of an immediate shift in the policy of Russia, which has irritated the West with its insistence on equally blaming the violence on Syrian opposition rebels as much as the government forces.
"The side in the conflict in Syria on which we have influence is the government of Bashar al-Assad. Unfortunately, his actions, in practical terms, reflect our advice far from always and far from swiftly," Lavrov said.
In one of his most public displays of frustration with the Syrian leader, Lavrov said Assad's stabs at reform like ending the one party rule of the Baath party had been welcome but far too late.
"Yes he has adopted useful laws to renew the system -- to make it more pluralistic than the one-party system that existed there -- but with a big delay," he told the lower house parliament the State Duma.
"The suggestion to start (national) dialogue is also being made with a delay. Meanwhile the armed resistance is gaining its own dynamic and this inertia can end up engulfing everyone," Lavrov warned.
Western powers have been urging Russia to use its influence with the Assad regime to persuade it to end a deadly crackdown on protestors. The West has also repeatedly accused Moscow of being too soft on Damascus.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Lavrov said Russia was defending "fairness" rather than Assad's regime and it was up to the Syrian people to decide who should lead the country.
"It is the people who should be deciding who is in power in Syria. We are not defending the regime but fairness, the sovereign right of the Syrian people themselves to have a democratic choice," he added.
Lavrov was appearing in parliament amid growing Western pressure for Moscow to stop backing its Soviet-era ally after nearly a year of bloodshed that UN estimates say have claimed more than 8,000 lives.
Russia has, together with China, twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning Assad's regime and has expressed grave reservations about a new US-backed resolution on the conflict.
Lavrov said Russia was concerned that current Western and Arab initiatives were siding with the armed resistance and could lead to only more turmoil in both Syria and surrounding regions.
"Our goal is to achieve peace in Syria, save people's lives, avert an inter-confessional explosion in the Middle Eastern region, and maintain stability and security in the immediate proximity of our borders," Lavrov said.
Foreign intervention or outright support for the rebels could lead to a "ruinous civil war with unpredictable regional consequences," Lavrov stressed.
He also reaffirmed Russia's call for an immediate ceasefire which would be implemented simultaneously by both the government and the rebels and would then be monitored by international observers.