Putin defends Russian stance on Syria

March 2, 2012 - 7:25 AM
Russia Putin

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a Cabinet meeting in Moscow, Thursday, March 1, 2012. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Government Press Service)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday accused the West of fueling the Syrian conflict by backing government opposition, but his foreign ministry said it will not protect Syria from military intervention.

Putin called for both Syrian government and opposition forces to pull out of besieged cities to end the bloodshed, adding that Western refusal to make that demand of opponents of President Bashar Assad has encouraged them to keep fighting.

"Do they want Assad to pull out his forces so the opposition moves right in?" Putin said at during a meeting with editors of top Western newspapers in remarks released by his office and carried by state television Friday. "Is it a balanced approach?"

While staunchly protecting Assad from United Nations sanctions, Russia has made it clear that it will not be able to stop other countries from launching a military intervention if they try to do it without U.N. approval.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Friday that Russia will not provide any kind of military assistance to Syria in such a situation. Commenting on a Soviet-era treaty which contained Moscow's vague promise to help Syria if it comes under attack, he said the document only envisages consultations.

"There is no talk about us offering military assistance," Lukashevich said in a statement. "Russia isn't going to do anything of the kind."

Putin ridiculed Western demands of Assad, saying the next thing they want will be for the Syrian leader "to grab a wooden mackintosh and have music play in his house." A wooden mackintosh, or a trenchcoat, was a jovial term used in Soviet-era comedy movies to mean coffin.

Assad "will not hear (the music) because it will be his funeral," he said. "He will never agree to that demand."

Putin refused to speculate on Assad's chance of holding onto power, saying that reforms in Syria have been long overdue and it's unclear whether the government and the opposition could find a consensus.

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East. Moscow has maintained close ties with Damascus since the Cold War, when Syria was led by the current leader's father, Hafez Assad.

Putin insisted that Russia's opposition to the United Nations resolution condemning Assad is rooted not in its economic interests, but a desire to help end hostilities.

He defended last month's Russia-China veto of a U.N. resolution condemning Assad's crackdown on protests, saying that Moscow wants to prevent the replay of what happened in Libya, where a NATO air campaign helped Libyan opposition forces oust Moammar Gadhafi.

Putin said that while Gadhafi's regime was "crazy," its ouster led to the massive killings of civilians. He accused the Western media of silencing the scale of atrocities by anti-Gadhafi forces.

Putin argued that Russia now wants parties involved in the conflict in Syria to "find a consensus and stop killing each other."

"Instead of encouraging parties to the conflict, it's necessary to force them to sit down for talks and begin political procedures and political reforms that would be acceptable for all participants in the conflict," he said.

Putin also reaffirmed a strong warning against an attack on Iran.

"For us, it will have extremely negative consequences," he said, adding that a strike on Iran will likely trigger a flow of refugees into Russia.