vladimir putin.jpg
Photograph: Hina/ BETA/ Marko RUPENA/ik

Russia could give asylum to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad if he is forced to leave his country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview published Tuesday.

"It was surely more difficult to grant Mr Snowden asylum in Russia than it would be in the case of Assad," Putin told Germany's most popular tabloid, Bild, referring to former US intelligence worker turned whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who was given asylum in Russia in 2013.

Putin said it was too early to say whether Russia would have to shelter al-Assad, whose country has disintegrated in a civil war that has lasted almost five years.

"First the Syrian population has to be able to vote, and then we will see if Assad would have to leave his country if he loses the election," Putin said.

Russia has been a key backer of al-Assad and in September launched an air campaign backing up the Syrian leader's overstretched army in its struggle against rebel groups and the Islamic State extremist organization.

In an apparent response to the interview, Syrian state news agency SANA quoted al-Assad praising the role played by Russia and Iran in Syria's "fateful war against extremist terrorism."

"Friendly states, foremost among them Iran and Russia, have had an important role in supporting Syria's resistance over the past five years," al-Assad told visiting Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli.

In his interview with Bild, Putin admitted that he thinks al-Assad has "done much wrong over the course of this conflict."

But he added: "The conflict would never have become so big if it had not been fuelled by outside of Syria – with weapons, money and fighters."

Putin reiterated Russia's position that it is supporting al-Assad, a longtime ally, in an effort to avert a failed state scenario like in Libya.

"We do not want Syria to end like Iraq or Libya," Putin said. "Look at Egypt: one has to praise President Sisi for taking over the responsibility and power in an emergency situation, in order to stabilize the country."

When asked about al-Assad's military bombing fellow Syrians, Putin said: "Assad does not fight against his own population, but against those who take armed action against the government."

"If the civil population is then also harmed, it is not Assad's fault, but primarily the fault of the insurgents and their foreign supporters," Putin said.

However, he added that "once again, this is not supposed to mean that everything is fine in Syria or that Assad is doing everything right."

Putin also said his country would "resist" NATO member Turkey if that country threatens Russia's national security, referring to Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane in November on the accusation that the plane flew into Turkish territory.

"I very much hope that such events do not grow into large military conflicts. But if Russia's interests and security are threatened, Russia will resist. Everyone needs to know that," Putin said.

He added that, if Turkey attacks Russia, NATO does not need to get involved.

"Turkey is part of NATO, but it was not attacked. NATO therefore does not have to protect Turkey, and our problems with Turkey have nothing to do with the NATO membership of that country," Putin said.

"The Turkish leadership had better apologize for shooting the plane down, which was clearly a war crime, instead of calling NATO's headquarters," Putin said.

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