Vladimir Putin hints Russia could give Assad asylum

Vladimir Putin hints Russia could give Assad asylum
Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum in Moscow would be possible, but stressed many hurdles remained for achieving a political solution in Syria.
3 min read
12 January, 2016
Putin said giving Assad (L) asylum would be easier compared to Edward Snowden's case [Getty]

Russia's strongman Vladimir Putin has outlined his vision for a political solution in Syria, where his country has intervened alongside embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

Vladimir Putin said a political solution would begin with a new constitution and democratic elections. 

"I believe it's necessary to move toward constitutional reform [in Syria]," said Putin. "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", he added.

Assad is seen by many analysts as the largest obstacle to ending the civil war here.

Opposition leaders won't begin peace talks without a date for Assad's departure, while Assad himself points to the 2014 presidential election - held only in areas under Assad's control - which unsurprisingly returned him to power, as an indicator of his democratic legitimacy and popular support.

But while saying it was too early to consider whether Moscow would grant political asylum to the Syrian leader, Putin said that doing do would not be difficult.

"We granted asylum to Snowden," Putin said, referring to the fugitive US whistleblower. "That was more difficult than [it would be] to shelter Assad."

But the Russian leader told German newspaper Bild that, if the next election in Syria were truly democratic, "Assad won't have to go anywhere, no matter if he is elected president or not". 

However, Putin did not elaborate on how Assad's candidature could be accepted by the Syrian opposition and rebels.

Accusations of war crimes have been levelled against the Assad regime for its brutal handling of the nearly five-year rebellion, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of millions of Syrians and the near-total destruction of entire cities and villages.

Under fire

The Kremlin has come under fire in recent months for allegedly targeting all of Assad's varied opponents - not just the Islamic State group - in a series of airstrikes which have reportedly killed at least dozens of civilians.

Damascus uses the term "terrorist" to describe all armed opposition to Assad's continuing rule, and Moscow echoed the rhetoric when its air force joined the Syrian quagmire.

Our planes, today, are launching airstrikes to support 11 democratic opposition groups

But in this latest interview, Putin said Moscow's firepower was concentrated on Islamic State group militants, helping parts of the Syrian opposition in the fight against IS.

"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," he said.

"I am talking about hundreds, thousands of armed people, who combat 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.

But his remarks to Bild were backed up by the Kremlin's military leaders. The Russian air force is "supporting the national forces that are fighting international terrorists on Syrian territories", said army chief Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy.

"Our planes, today, are launching airstrikes to support 11 democratic opposition groups who number more than 7,000."

The rebel umbrella group Free Syrian Army (FSA) previously denied such claims by Russia, stressing they would never cooperate with their "enemy".

The FSA has said Putin's remarks were meant to "mislead international public opinion," pointing out that Russian airstrikes have repeatedly targeted FSA positions since Moscow's intervention in Syria began on Sep. 30.

Putin sent his air force in late September ostensibly to bomb Islamic State militants, but most of Russia's airstrikes have targeted rebels fighting the Assad regime and rebel-held towns and villages, killing hundreds of civilians, according to monitors and rights groups.