Would Russia grant asylum to Syria's embattled president?

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted he might offer refuge to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But would his departure bring peace to Syria? 

Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia in October 2015.. Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday evening to thank Putin for launching air strikes against Islamist militants in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled last week he might be willing to grant asylum to Syria’s embattled leader.

In comments made during an interview with the German magazine Bild, Mr. Putin said while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made mistakes, it was too early to discuss the prospect of granting him refuge.

Putin noted that the country has already extended diplomatic protection to former American NSA contractor Edward Snowden, after he released a trove of internal documents and fled to Russia.

“We granted asylum to Mr. Snowden, which was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr al-Assad,” he said. “First, the Syrian people should be given the opportunity to have their say. I assure you, if this process is conducted democratically, then al-Assad will probably not need to leave the country at all. And it is not important whether he remains president or not.”

Mr. Putin called for a new Syrian constitution during the interview, an endeavor he said would open up presidential and parliamentary elections and test Assad’s popularity, assuming the voting process would be conducted democratically.

“It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who should run their country and how,” he said.

But while a fair democratic election seems unlikely with Assad in control, could his departure bring peace to Syria and end a nearly five-year-long civil war? Or is the muddle of competing factions fighting against the embattled leader and the influence of Islamic State too much to overcome?

President Obama has resolved that Assad must leave, which has been a point of contention with Russia, one of Assad's most ardent supporters.

Russia began a military campaign in September Putin said would target Islamic State, though it has conducted many airstrikes on opposition forces contesting Assad’s rule.

In 2012, Russia reportedly tendered a proposal to oust Assad from power as part of a potential peace deal. But Western nations declined the offer, according to one senior diplomat involved in the negotiations, who told the Guardian those countries, including the United States, thought rebels forces were close to toppling Assad.

“It was an opportunity lost in 2012,” said former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who took part in the talks.

Instead, Islamic State laid siege to swaths of Syria as competing rebel groups fighting for control of the region also battled forces loyal to Assad.

But there are signs that some rebel groups are willing to cooperate to work toward peace.

More than 100 opposition members from varying groups in December met in Saudi Arabia to start peace talks. The group was comprised of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, two Sunni groups supported by the Saudis, and a smattering of smaller rebel groups.

“The aim of the political settlement is to create a state based on the principle of citizenship without Bashar al-Assad or figures of his regime having a place in it or any future political arrangements,” the rebels said in a statement. “Participants have insisted that Bashar al-Assad and his aides quit power with the start of the transition period.” 

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