Putin further distances Russia from Syria's Assad

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MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday that change was needed in Damascus, further distancing Moscow from Syrian President Bashar Assad in another sign that Mr. Assad's support may be fraying even among his few remaining allies.

Mr. Putin made the comments as a U.N. panel concluded that Syria's raging conflict had become "overtly sectarian" after almost two years of violence and tens of thousands of deaths.

He said Russia would not back Mr. Assad, long a close ally, "at any price," and he used some of the Kremlin's strongest language to date indicating that Russia recognized that Mr. Assad's days were numbered.

"We are not concerned with the fate of Assad's regime," Mr. Putin told journalists in Moscow. "We understand what is going on, given that the [Assad] family has been in power for 40 years, and that the need for change is certainly on the agenda."

Iran -- Mr. Assad's other major ally -- floated its own peace plan last weekend that could, in theory, lead to elections that would see Mr. Assad replaced. Like Moscow, however, Tehran has rejected calls from Washington and elsewhere for the departure of Mr. Assad. Mr. Putin provided no hint that Russia was close to signing off on any deal that would guarantee his ouster.

Mr. Assad's vice president, Farouk Sharaa, said in comments in a Lebanese newspaper this week that neither regime forces nor opposition fighters could score a military victory.

Some analysts viewed those remarks as a sign that the regime could be increasingly concerned about its survival as rebels mount an offensive for the capital. Rebels have made steady territorial gains in Syria, though Assad forces still control the capital and maintain considerable support among segments of the population fearful of Iraq-style chaos should the rebels triumph.

There is speculation that U.S., Turkish and Russian diplomats may be trying to craft some kind of follow-up to an agreement reached in June in Geneva that called for a transitional government in Syria but did not call for Mr. Assad to step down. At the time, Moscow balked at U.S.-backed language that would have mandated Mr. Assad's departure.

Moscow has said for some time that its interest was to avoid a further bloodbath and anarchy in the heart of the Middle East. The Russian president repeated Moscow's position that negotiation must be the path to resolve the Syrian crisis. "I think agreements based on a military victory are out of place here and cannot be effective," he said, adding, "What will happen there primarily depends on the Syrian people themselves."

Russian leaders have often cited the chaotic situations that have unfolded when Arab strongmen such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi have fallen after Western-led intervention. Still, analysts note a perceptible shift in the Kremlin's position on Mr. Assad and thinly disguised annoyance with the Syrian leader's reluctance to make decisive changes.

Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said the rebels might succeed in ousting Mr. Assad, the first such public acknowledgment from a Russian insider. Moscow sought to backtrack the next day, insisting that Mr. Bogdanov's comments were mischaracterized, but the remarks did appear to reflect a broader view.

Russia has long been an ally of Mr. Assad and his father, the late Hafez Assad, who ruled for 30 years before his son succeeded him 12 years ago.

Russia has a naval resupply base in the Mediterranean city of Tartus and thousands of Russian citizens reside in Syria. Moscow is reportedly making contingency plans to evacuate its citizens should the situation continue to deteriorate.

In Geneva, meantime, a new U.N.-commissioned report outlined a dire scenario in the war-ravaged nation and asserted that ethnic and religious differences are now stoking escalating violence, drawing in militants and extremists from throughout the region. "Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or of being killed inside the country," the U.N.-impaneled Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in an interim report.



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