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Putin fears civil war but rejects intervention in Syria

He says Russia is supporting neither side

AFP/Getty Images

Russian president Vladimir Putin said sanctions did not work and that removing Bashar Assad was no panacea.

BERLIN - President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said Friday that he rejected outside military intervention as an answer to the increasingly horrific bloodshed in Syria, and the Kremlin sided with President Bashar Assad of Syria in blaming Assad’s armed rebel opponents for a massacre there last week that incited world outrage.

But Putin said he agreed with fears expressed by Western leaders and UN officials that the 15-month-old Syrian conflict is hurtling toward civil war, and he asserted that Russia backed neither side despite his country’s longstanding support for the Syrian government, its last significant ally in the Middle East.

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Syrian rights activists, Western and Arab countries, and UN officials have said the evidence points to complicity by the Syrian military and pro-Assad militiamen for the May 25 massacre in Houla, a cluster of villages in western Syria.

The main UN human rights body voted overwhelmingly Friday to authorize an inquiry that Navi Pillay, the top UN rights official, said could lead to war-crimes charges. Even as that vote was under way, another mass killing was reported in Syria, the third in a week.

Putin’s remarks on Syria, coming during stops in Germany and France as he began his first foreign trip since reclaiming the Russian presidency, were scrutinized for any hint of a shift in the Russian position on Syria that could help change the course of the conflict, which has become the most protracted and violent of the Arab Spring revolts.

Russia’s objection to any effort by the United States and its allies that could lead to a forceful UN Security Council intervention in Syria and the ouster of Assad has been a major source of contention. But Putin showed no sign of yielding to pressure from either Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, or Francois Hollande, the new president of France.

“We are seeing nascent elements of a civil war today. This is extremely dangerous,’’ Putin said at a news conference with Merkel following their discussions. At the same time, he dismissed the idea that outside military power was a solution, telling reporters, “You cannot do anything by force.’’

He also said: “Those who say that Russia unilaterally supports the Assad regime are mistaken. We and Syria have maintained good relations for years, but we do not support either party from which a threat of civil war emanates.’’

As for reports that Russia is arming the Syrian military, Putin said: “Russia is not shipping weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.’’

In her remarks, Merkel told reporters that they had both made clear that they supported the Syria peace plan by Kofi Annan, the special representative from the United Nations and the Arab League, and both she and Putin “have the same interests regarding stability in the whole region, even if there is the one or the other odd difference in the path to get there.’’

Later in Paris, the contrast between the Russian and Western positions was more pronounced.

Hollande told reporters that UN sanctions were probably necessary and that “no solution is possible without the departure of Bashar al-Assad.’’

Putin said sanctions did not work and that removing Assad was no panacea.

“Do you think that just by removing the president there will be happiness across the country?’’ he said. “Just look at what has happened in Libya.’’

In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement blaming unspecified foreign countries for the Houla massacre, the worst known atrocity in the conflict.

Apparently exonerating Assad of any responsibility for the 108 victims, half of them children, the statement said the killings “showed what can result from supplying rebels with financial aid and smuggling modern weaponry to them, hiring foreign mercenaries, and flirting with different kinds of extremists.’’

Russia’s resistance to pressure on Syria reflects an anger that has grown since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, which hard-liners in Moscow view as largely orchestrated by the West.

They are particularly resentful over the case of Libya, in which Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the president, agreed not to block a Security Council resolution that provided the basis for NATO airstrikes and the violent death of the Libyan leader, Moammar Khadafy.

Putin fumed over the military campaign at the time but was powerless to stop it.

“If it hadn’t been for Libya, maybe things would be different with Syria,’’ said Georgy Mirsky, a leading Middle East scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “That was bad for the reputation of Medvedev, and Putin doesn’t want to repeat that.’’

Mirsky said that Assad “believes that time is working for him,’’ and until that changed, “It would be absolutely impossible for Russia to distance itself from him.’’

Russia’s support for Assad was evident in the debate on the Houla massacre at the UN Human Rights Council emergency meeting in Geneva, where members voted 41-3 in favor of authorizing an inquiry.

Russia, China, and Cuba, the dissident votes, called the move a pretext for laying the groundwork for foreign intervention.

Even as the debate on Houla was under way in Geneva, details emerged of a new massacre in Syria. Eleven bodies were found dumped in an orchard outside Qusair, a city controlled by the Free Syrian Army, the main anti-Assad armed group, and bore gunshot wounds that appeared to show that the dead had been summarily executed, said Salim Kabani, an activist in the city reached via Skype. Pictures of the men posted online showed that their hands had been bound.

The men were on a bus en route home from work at a fertilizer factory owned by the government just outside Qusair to the village of Buwayda, said Kabani, but they were stopped at a government-controlled checkpoint outside their village.

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