Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, told Russia yesterday it will be responsible for unleashing a full-blown civil war in Syria unless it changes course and sides with Washington and other Western powers in pushing for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and facilitate a political transition.
The comments from Mrs Clinton, made in Copenhagen at the start of a Scandinavian tour, reflect a deepening conviction among top US policymakers that persuading President Vladimir Putin to cut Assad loose is about the only palatable option available in trying to tackle the Syrian crisis.
Finding some way forward is politically urgent for President Barack Obama, who, just five months from the US election, is being accused by Republicans of sitting on his hands. On a visit to Malaysia yesterday, Senator John McCain said it was "embarrassing that the United States of America refuses to show leadership and come to the aid of the Syrian people" and advocated arming the Syrian opposition.
Some diplomats hope that if progress with Russia cannot be made during visits by Mr Putin to Berlin and Paris today, it can be at a G20 summit later this month in Mexico. So far, however, Moscow, which has twice vetoed UN resolutions on Syria, seems intent on maintaining its opposition to outside intervention.
"We have to bring the Russians on board because the dangers we face are terrible," Mrs Clinton told a group of Danish students. In a clear message to Moscow, she said the Russians "are telling me they don't want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war."
The international stalemate came as a split in the command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was exposed when its supposed leader in Turkey dismissed a statement by a colonel on the ground who said the rebels would resume attacks if regime troops do not abide by a UN ceasefire by noon today.
FSA fighters inside Syria reacted furiously after Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who fled Syria for Turkey after his defection from the airforce in July last year and set up FSA with other senior defectors, contradicted Colonel Qassim Saadeddine's declaration of a deadline.
"The true leaders of the Free Syrian Army are inside Syria, not in five-star hotels in Turkey," an FSA spokesman told The Independent. "There are 10 regional military councils across Syria and the one they recognise as their leader is Colonel Qassim Saadeddine."
The friction between the two senior officers illustrates the growing tension in the FSA, with many of the more senior defectors taking up positions of command away from the battlefield in neighbouring Turkey. Col Saadeddine's video statement purported to speak for "the joint command of the Free Army inside Syria which includes all military councils with brigades and units in different governorates" and gave President Bashar al Assad's forces 48-hours to "end all forms of violence".
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the FSA lacked "meaningful command structures" as many groups use the label but said he expects a "new generation" of opposition leaders to emerge on the ground between now and the autumn, both military and non-military.
The fragmented nature of the opposition to the Assad regime, has been one of the main reasons – alongside the lack of a UN mandate – that those calling for the Syrian president to be deposed have been reluctant to give military aid to the opposition.
"For those who are advocating arming the opposition they should consider the consequences of that approach and also to ask frankly, who are they arming?" noted Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN Security Council. "It is not a united opposition, it is fragmented." At a meeting in Geneva today, the UN Human Rights Council is expected set up a formal probe into last week's Houla massacre.
Dennis Ross, the respected former special adviser to President Obama, suggested yesterday that the US should be planning to create a "safe haven" for civilians in northern Syria, a step that would necessarily mean deploying troops to defend it. "We need to start planning for it," he said.
The most persistent critic of Mr Obama so far has been his challenger, Mitt Romney. "The world looks to America to lead and we've been sitting in the back burner hoping things would become arranged in a way that was attractive to the world," he said. "What's happening in Syria is unacceptable."
Houla massacre carried out by 'armed gangs'
The Syrian government yesterday claimed that the massacre in Houla was perpetrated by "armed gangs" as part of a plan to bring about civil war and foreign intervention.
Brigadier General Qassem Jamal Suleiman, the head of a committee investigating the killings, said the victims were opposed to armed opposition groups in the area and included the relatives of a member of parliament. "The massacre... is part of the plan for a civil war with international intervention," he said.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, insisted that security forces never entered the area. "The victims' bodies did not show any traces of bombing," he said. Mr Makdissi's statement is contradicted by videos from Houla before the massacre on Friday.
The boy, 11, who played dead as his family were murdered in their home
When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.
The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one.
The youngest to die was Ali's brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes, one in his head, another in his back.
"I put my brother's blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told the AP news agency over Skype, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an orphan and an only child.
Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria's central Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses. AP