Putin says Assad should have gone ahead with reforms

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he had always believed that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad should have implemented political reforms that could have averted the current bloodbath.

But Mr Putin also stressed that he remained firmly opposed to outside intervention and implied that Russia's position on the crisis remained unchanged.

The Russian leader told a question-and-answer session held in the studio of RT television - Moscow's state-run international channel - that Assad should have listened more closely to opposition demands when the conflict broke out in March 2011.

"I have said that it seemed like the country was ripe for changes and its leadership should have sensed this and begun implementing these changes," Mr Putin said.

"This is apparent. Otherwise, everything that is happening - it would not have happened."

Mr Putin also denied that Russia was acting as a public defender of Assad by blocking three rounds of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning him for violence that has now claimed more than 94,000 lives.

"We are not the lawyers of the current government or President Bashar al-Assad," Mr Putin said.

"We do not want to get involved in a conflict raging between different branches of Islam, between the Shiites and the Sunnis."

Russia and the United States on May 7 jointly proposed holding an international peace conference that could get the two warring sides at the negotiating table for the first time.

The prospects of the talks being held in Geneva in the coming weeks have been dimmed by the rebels' refusal to attend any negotiations that are held against the backdrop of their recent heavy losses on the ground.

The rebels' damaging defeats have sparked renewed debate in the United States about the need to funnel arms to the armed opposition.

But Mr Putin said such tactics are misguided because a large section of the rebels are openly allied with Al-Qaeda and present an enormous danger themselves.

"Certain people watching from the side think that if this entire region is fashioned in a certain manner and branded a democracy, that then everything will be fine," Mr Putin said. "This is not the case," he stressed.