Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria in an interview that aired Thursday on the Russia Today television station.
"To us, the most important thing is to end the violence, to force all the sides in the conflict to sit down at the negotiating table, determine the future and ensure the security of all the participants of the domestic political process," he said.
But Putin is not prepared to change his stance regarding the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia, a member of the U.N. Security Council, has vetoed three resolutions that would have put pressure on Damascus.
"Why should Russia be the only one reassessing its position? Perhaps our negotiating partners should reassess their position," he said.
Syrians opposed to the Assad regime, loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, have been fighting against government forces for the last 18 months in an increasingly bloody showdown that has claimed more than 20,000 lives. Most Western nations have called for action to protect Syrian civilians, ranging from U.N.-imposed sanctions on the regime to military intervention.
But Putin opposes assisting the rebels, he says, partly because they contain elements he claims would threaten the prospect of lasting peace.
"Today, somebody is using al Qaeda fighters or people from other organizations with the same extreme views to achieve their goals in Syria," Putin said. "This is a very dangerous and short-sighted policy."
Putin hinted that such a policy in Syria would be similar to the United States' actions during the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989, when the U.S. government helped the mujahedeen -- Afghan rebel fighters -- repel Soviet troops. In the end, the weapons and training from the United States helped to prolong Afghanistan's own civil war and facilitated the rise of the Taliban.
Such a policy in Syria, added Putin, would be similar to "open[ing] the gates to Guantanamo and let[ting] all the Guantanamo inmates into Syria, let them fight. It's the same thing."
Russia has long been allied with the Syrian government, though this relationship has been strained considerably over the past year under international pressure. Russia has been a major supplier of Syrian weaponry, and Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea is located at the Syrian port city of Tartus.
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