Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia could offer asylum to Bashar al-Assad, but added that the Syrian President's fate was in the hands of the country's electorate.
Speaking to German tabloid Bild, Putin said: "It was surely more difficult to grant [US national security contractor Edward] Snowden asylum in Russia than it would be in the case of Assad," referring to the NSA contractor who fled to Russia after disclosing the details of a top secret US mass surveillance programme.
A long-time ally of the Syrian government, Russia began air strikes against rebels trying to oust Assad in Syria in 2015.
Western powers have previously insisted that Assad would have to leave as a precondition for peace talks to take place, though in recent months suggested he could remain in office as part of a transitional government. The Syrian government said on January 9 that it was ready to take part in peace talks scheduled for January 25 in Geneva if it could vet a list of opposition negotiators for links to "terrorist groups."
Putin said it was too early to say if Russia would have to take in Assad as part of a transition to a new Syrian government, as the Syrian people were yet to vote. "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.
Though Putin conceded that Assad had "done much wrong" over the course of Syria's brutal five year civil war, he blamed foreign powers for their part in the conflict. "The conflict would never have become so big if it had not been fuelled by outside of Syria – with weapons, money and fighters", he said.
Escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the execution of Shia dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr have placed the prospects of a Syrian peace deal in doubt. "As for whether this will lead to a major regional clash, I do not know. I would rather not talk or even think in these terms," Putin said.