WASHINGTON Britain has detected a subtle shift in Russia's attitude to the Syrian conflict which it hopes may make it easier to organise a peace conference aimed at overseeing a political transition.
Though Russia shows no signs of withdrawing its backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, a meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday suggested Moscow was more willing to engage with the West on Syria, British sources said.
The meeting ran on far longer than scheduled and was dominated by Syria. At one point Putin put his briefing notes aside and asked Cameron to explain his stance on the conflict.
Last week the United States and Russia announced a joint effort to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to an international conference, the first such major diplomatic initiative to stop the civil war for almost a year.
Britain's perception of a new Russian attitude emerged as Cameron arrived in Washington on Monday to meet President Barack Obama in the White House with Syria high on the agenda.
Speaking during his flight to the United States, Cameron described his talks with Putin as "extremely positive and good".
He said: "I was very heartened that while it is no secret that Britain and Russia have taken a different approach to Syria I was very struck in my conversations with President Putin that there is a recognition that it would be in all our interests to secure a safe and secure Syria with a democratic and pluralistic future and end the regional instability."
Russia has frustrated Cameron and other Western leaders in the past by blocking action against Assad in the United Nations and by supplying the Syrian government with arms.
Cameron said he would talk to Obama about what he could do to help speed a U.S.-Russian proposal for a peace conference. He is also likely to discuss the sensitive issue of arming the rebels before an EU arms embargo on Syria expires next month.
Britain and France have pushed to lift or amend the embargo to put pressure on Assad, but the United States has so far been much more reticent about arming the rebels for fear any weapons it supplies could fall into the hands of Islamist militants.
Britain is also keen to discuss with Obama how the two countries can best boost Syria's opposition, but Cameron said the focus was now mostly on the quest for a political solution.
"There is something bigger happening here which is a realisation that it would be far better if what we could do is bring about a political transition through a greater engagement and agreement between America, Russia, Britain, France and other powers," he said.
(Reporting By Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alistair Lyon)