Russia isn’t wedded to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its main goal is to end the civil war in the country, President Vladimir Putin said.
The opposing sides will fall short of outright military victory, underlining the need for an accord, Putin told hundreds of journalists today at a Moscow news conference.
“We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed,” Putin said.
Russia has supported Assad throughout the 21-month Syrian conflict, maintaining weapons supplies and giving political support by blocking the West’s demands for action through the United Nations Security Council.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said last week that Assad is losing control and may be overthrown by the opposition, in the country’s first official acknowledgment that the Syrian leader’s days may be numbered. Syria “needs a change,” Putin said in September, again urging an end to the bloodshed.
“Russia is hedging its bets,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said by phone. Putin’s comments “show that Assad’s core appears to be melting, and Russia doesn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of the unfolding new Syria.”
Assad has been fighting an uprising since March 2011 that’s killed about 44,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The opposition has made gains against Assad’s forces and controls mainly Sunni Muslim areas stretching from the northeastern outskirts of the capital to the southwest.
Assad inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.
Russia has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state. After the 2003 overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.
Putin also criticized the U.S. today over the NATO-led overthrow of Qaddafi, which he said unleashed instability. Russia wants to avoid a similar outcome in other countries, he said.
Putin’s predecessor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, last year didn’t block UN approval for the Western military campaign in Libya, which the Russian leader has branded a “crusade.”