MOSCOW – If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ever feels the need to flee the hot winds of Damascus, he may be able to claim asylum in frigid Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted in an interview released Tuesday.
The Russian leader said that it was premature to discuss asylum for Assad if he were pushed from office in the nearly five-year-long conflict in Syria. But Putin said that “we granted asylum to Mr. Snowden, which was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr. al-Assad.”
Putin was referring to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who fled to Moscow after releasing reams of classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs. Snowden was granted asylum in Russia in 2013.
The Kremlin is one of Assad’s strongest foreign backers, and Russian airstrikes have pummeled Syrian opposition forces since the end of September, bolstering the beleaguered Assad regime. But Putin has long been said to take a dim view of Assad himself, an ophthalmologist-turned-president who has been engaged in a brutal civil war since the Arab Spring protests of early 2011.
Dating back to the Soviet era, Syria has been the Kremlin’s biggest ally in the Middle East, and Russia has maintained a naval base in Latakia for decades.
Putin’s surprise intervention in Syria was widely seen as an effort to prop up a faltering friend, and also to give Russia a seat at the table in any negotiations about the future of the country.
In the interview, conducted with Germany’s Bild newspaper Jan. 5 but released in part on the Kremlin website on Tuesday, Putin declined an opportunity to call Assad an “ally,” saying that “this is a rather subtle issue.”
“I think that President al-Assad has made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict,” Putin said. He called for a new constitution in Syria, followed by early elections. “It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who and how should run their country,” he said.
Assad has also expressed willingness to hold new elections if opposition forces put away their weapons, a promise that rebels say is disingenuous coming from a man whose troops drop barrel bombs on civilians.
If Assad were to flee to Moscow, he would be joining a club that includes Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, who escaped to Russia in February 2014 after being ousted by street protests.
Assad made a rare visit to Moscow in October, his first publicly-disclosed trip abroad since the Syrian protests erupted in 2011.
Russia recently granted its second-highest state decoration to Syrian Colonel Suheil al-Hassan, a crack battlefield commander who has been seen as a potential rival to Assad himself. Russia’s state-run Sputnik News reported Tuesday that the Syrian officer had been awarded the Order of Friendship at an air base outside Latakia from which Russia has been conducting airstrikes.
Hugh Naylor in Beirut contributed to this report.