Putin Defends Russian Stance On Syria

Published March 2, 2012 8:00AM (EST)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has strongly criticized the West for backing the Syrian opposition against the government, saying it has fueled the conflict.

Putin on Friday 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 a meeting with editors of top Western newspapers in remarks carried by state television. "Is it a balanced approach?"

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."

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.

By Salon Staff

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