Vladimir Putin has signalled that he is not concerned about the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, insisting that Russia wants only stability in Syria. But he gave no sign of a policy shift that would help galvanise international action to help end the country’s deepening crisis.
“We are not that preoccupied with the fate of Assad’s regime,” the Russian president told a press conference. “We understand what’s going on there and that his family has been in power for 40 years. Without a doubt, change is demanded. We’re worried about something else – what happens next. We don’t simply want for today’s opposition, having come to power, to start fighting with the current authorities, who then become the opposition, and this continues for ever.”
Putin’s remarks appear to confirm a growing feeling that Moscow now accepts that Assad’s days are numbered, even if that has no immediate practical effect. Russia remains the Syrian regime’s last significant ally and has shielded it from punitive UN sanctions.
On Thursday, the UN published a report describing the role of foreign fighters and the now “overtly sectarian” nature of the crisis. “As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law,” it said of the period between 28 September to 16 December.
Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian UN expert, described a “clear shift” by Syrians towards identifying enemies by their religious or communal identity. The main sectarian lines fall between the Assad family’s Alawite community, from which most of political and military figures hail, and the majority Sunni community, much of which supports the rebels.
But minorities such as Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmen have also been drawn in. “What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a member of the UN group, told a news conference in Brussels.
Syrian government forces had increasingly resorted to bombardments, including shelling hospitals, and evidence suggested that such attacks were “disproportionate”, the report said.
There were also accounts of summary executions by rebel groups, it added. Unlawful executions of captured government soldiers in Aleppo, Sabouk and Ras al-Ayn, where unarmed captives were gathered together and then gunned down, were under investigation.
Pinheiro pointed to considerable evidence of the use of torture, particularly in government detention centres in Damascus. Interviewees’ testimony indicated a “consistent and systematic pattern of torture” during which individuals were beaten and subjected to electric shocks while held in overcrowded underground cells. One victim who had been detained in a centre near Damascus for 30 days was subjected to electric shocks to his genitals.
Alistair Burt, Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, said the UN report was a stark reminder of the horrific situation in Syria: “Those responsible for these appalling crimes will be held to account.”