Granting asylum to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad would be much easier than sheltering U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden — who was given asylum in Russia in 2013 — Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview published Tuesday by the German tabloid Bild. However, he added, it is “quite premature” to discuss the issue.
“First, the Syrian people should be given the opportunity to have their say,” Putin, who has remained a staunch ally of the Syrian president since the start of the conflict in 2011, said. “I assure you, if this process is conducted democratically, then al-Assad will probably not need to leave the country at all.”
The civil war in Syria, currently in its fifth year, has so far led to the death of nearly 300,000 people. In the multipronged conflict, which has pitted U.S.-backed rebels against Assad — and since June 2014, the Islamic State group — the Syrian president has emerged as the most divisive figure.
“I think that President al-Assad has made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict,” Putin acknowledged. “However, don’t we all realize full well that this conflict would never have escalated to such a degree if it had not been supported from abroad through supplying money, weapons and fighters?”
While the U.S. and its allies have insisted that Assad must leave office for the peace process to progress, Russia and Iran say Syrian voters should have the right to decide his fate.
“I think that we should work towards a constitutional reform,” Putin reiterated. “Then, early presidential and parliamentary elections should be held, based on the new constitution. It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who and how should run their country.”
Moscow also began carrying out airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria in September, in a move many allege is aimed at weakening Assad’s opponents. During the interview, Putin defended the airstrikes and said his government supported “both, the al-Assad’s army and the armed opposition.”
“Do you know that we support military operations of the armed opposition that combats ISIS? We coordinate our joint operations with them and support their offensives by airstrikes in various sections of the frontline,” the Russian leader said.
Putin also said the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which widened last week after the Sunni nation executed a Shiite cleric, had exposed a sectarian conflict that exists throughout the Middle East, and could make achieving peace in Syria more difficult.
“We regret this has happened, especially given that the cleric had not been fighting against Saudi Arabia with lethal force,” Putin said. “As for whether this will lead to a major regional clash, I do not know. I would rather not talk or even think in these terms.”