Vladimir Putin moves away from full backing for Bashar al-Assad

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RUSSIAN president Vladimir Putin has distanced himself from Syria’s embattled leader, suggesting president Bashar al-Assad’s regime is growing weaker while warning his decline could worsen the crisis.

Mr Putin insisted, however, that Russia’s position has not changed and that only a negotiated agreement could “prevent a break-up of the country and an endless civil war”.

Other Russian officials have made similar statements recently, although Mr Putin’s carry much more weight, suggesting that resignation to the idea that Mr Assad could fall extends to the Kremlin’s top reaches.

Last week, Russia’s top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Mr Assad’s forces were losing control of Syria. Although the foreign ministry later contradicted that, analysts have suggested for months that Russia’s leaders recognise that Mr Assad was vulnerable.

Russia has stood staunchly by him throughout the 21-month conflict, providing his forces with weapons and, along with China, protecting his government from censure by the United Nations Security Council for its violent crackdown on the opposition.

Yesterday Mr Putin said: “We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime. We realise what’s going on and that the family has been in power for 40 years. Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes.”

He said Russia did not seek “to keep Assad and his regime in power at any cost,” but to foster an agreement among Syrians that “will ensure their safety and participation in governing”.

He added: “We are worried about what happens next. We don’t want to see the opposition come to power and start fighting the government ... so that it goes on forever.”