MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syria needs to start working on a new constitution as a first step to finding a political solution to its civil war, though he acknowledged the process was likely to be difficult.
Putin, who has thrown Russia’s support behind Syrian President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, also said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that the crisis in relations between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran would complicate the search for peace in Syria.
“I believe it’s necessary to move toward constitutional reform (in Syria). It’s a complicated process, of course. And after that, on the basis of the new constitution, (Syria should) hold early presidential and parliamentary elections,” Putin said in the interview conducted Jan. 5.
Putin obliquely referred to diplomatic pressure from the United States and France to concentrate Moscow’s firepower on Islamic State militants. In this, he said Russian military aid was going to help parts of the Syrian opposition in the fight against the group as well as to help Assad.
“You are talking about Assad as our ally. Do you know that we are backing the actions of the armed opposition combating Islamic State? . . . We are coordinating our joint actions with them and support their offensive operations on different parts of the front with strikes by our air force.
“I am talking about hundreds, thousands of armed people, who combat the Islamic State. . . . Some of them have already spoken about it in public, others prefer keeping silent, but the work is going on.”
Putin made similar comments last year, but Russian officials subsequently denied that Moscow provided military aid to the Syrian opposition groups that Putin had mentioned.
Putin also said giving refuge to Assad would be much easier than it was for Russia to grant asylum to former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, though he dismissed the idea as “premature” in the Bild interview.
If presidential elections in Syria are held democratically under a United Nations-sponsored peace plan, “then Assad will probably not need to leave the country at all,” Putin told Bild. “And it is not important whether he stays as president or not.”
Russia’s harboring of Snowden, accused of making public U.S. surveillance secrets, sparked a major confrontation with the U.S. in 2013. Tensions between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers escalated into the worst post-Cold War standoff in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and backed insurgents in nearby regions. Now Russia and the U.S. are cooperating to end five years of civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 250,000 Syrians and led millions more to flee their homes, provoking the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Snowden won the right to live in Russia for three more years in 2014, extending a one-year asylum that ended his 39-day stay in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. He fled to Moscow from Hong Kong after exposing clandestine National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data.
In the interview with Bild, Putin said the row between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Riyadh’s execution of a Shiite Muslim cleric on Jan. 2 would complicate attempts to reach a solution to the Syrian conflict.
“If our participation were needed, we would be ready to do everything for the conflict to be resolved, and as soon as possible,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview, sent to media by the Kremlin press office.