SOCHI, Russia/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad had told him he was ready to talk to armed opposition groups if they are genuinely committed to dialogue and to combating Islamic State.
Speaking a day after Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow for talks with Putin -- underlining Moscow’s new role as a central player in Syria’s conflict -- Putin said the two men had talked about the need for a political solution.
Some Western governments have portrayed Russia as an obstacle to a political deal, especially since it started air strikes on Islamist groups in Syria opposed to Assad, including some backed by the United States and its allies.
But Putin said he believed that the military operation in Syria could create the right conditions for progress in talks on the future of the country.
“I will pull open the curtain a little on my talks with President Assad,” Putin said at a forum in the Russian resort of Sochi on Thursday evening.
“I asked him: ‘What view would you take if we found, now in Syria, an armed opposition which nonetheless was ready to oppose and really fight against terrorists, against Islamic State? What would be your view if we were to support their efforts in fighting Islamic State in the same way we are supporting the Syrian army’,” Putin said.
“He answered: ‘I would view that positively’,” Putin said of Assad.
The Russian president went on: “We are now thinking about this and are trying, if it works out, to reach these agreements.”
Putin also said that, at the root of the Syrian conflict was not just Islamist militancy but also internal tensions -- a recognition that at least some of the people who rebelled against Assad’s rule had a legitimate grievance.
Russia has rejected Western calls for Assad to step down. On Thursday, Putin repeated his view that Syria’s leadership could only be decided by the Syrian people, not outside powers, via transparent elections.
However, some observers believe Putin could use his enhanced influence over Damascus to pressure Assad into making concessions to the opposition, unblocking a peace process that has been at a virtual standstill for years.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Alison Williams