Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a news conference in Moscow, says… (Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP/Getty…)
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 Assad's support may be fraying even among his few remaining allies.
Putin made the comments as a United Nations panel concluded that Syria's raging conflict had become "overtly sectarian" and was drawing foreign fighters after almost two years of violence and tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin said Russia would not back 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 Assad's days were numbered.
"We are not concerned with the fate of Assad's regime," 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 — Assad's other major ally — floated its own peace plan last weekend that could, in theory, lead to elections that would see Assad replaced. Like Moscow, however, Tehran has rejected calls from Washington and elsewhere for the departure of Assad. Putin provided no hint that Russia was close to signing off on any deal that would guarantee Assad's ouster.
Assad's vice president, Farouk Sharaa, said in comments published in a Lebanese newspaper this week that neither government forces nor opposition fighters could score a military victory. Some analysts viewed the 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's 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 Assad to step down. At the time, Moscow balked at U.S.-backed language that would have mandated 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 the Moscow 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," Putin said, adding, "What will happen there primarily depends on the Syrian people themselves."
Moscow has been wary of the Middle East's wave of "Arab Spring" revolutions, citing heightened regional instability and the rise of Islamist power. Russia's aim, Putin said, is to prevent Syria from descending into "a never-ending civil war."
Russian leaders have often cited the chaotic situations that have unfolded when Arab strongmen such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Kadafi have fallen after Western-led intervention. Still, analysts note a perceptible shift in the Kremlin's position on 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 Assad, the first such public acknowledgment from a Russian insider. Moscow sought to backtrack the next day, insisting that Bogdanov's comments were mischaracterized, but the remarks did appear to reflect a broader view.
"Obviously the Kremlin tried to assert its influence recently to compel Assad to make some compromises … but to no avail," said Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank, in an interview. "That certainly rubbed Putin the wrong way, and the Russian leader is having a hard time hiding his irritation with Assad."
Just a few months ago, Kortunov noted, the kinds of comments that Putin uttered Thursday about Assad would have been unthinkable.
"The time is working against Assad, and Moscow increasingly understands that the longer the civil war goes the less chances Assad has to come out victorious," Kortunov said.
Russia has long been an ally of 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 Syria's 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.
Meanwhile, a new U.N.-commissioned report outlines a dire scenario in the war-ravaged nation and asserts that ethnic and religious differences are now stoking the escalating violence, drawing in militants and extremists from throughout the region.