AP News

Putin signals Russia can be more flexible on Syria


MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia should listen to some of the French arguments about Syria — over a bottle of vodka, not merely wine.

Putin made the comment after talks in Moscow with French President Francois Hollande, whom Putin said made some new proposals on dealing with the nearly 2-year-old conflict in the Arab state.

The Russian leader did not offer any details on the French ideas or elaborate which of them Moscow should heed, but his remarks were unusually conciliatory for a man who has spent most of the past two years criticizing the West's stance on Syria's civil war and insisting Russia's approach is best.

"We should listen to the opinion of our partners on some of the aspects of that difficult problem," Putin told reporters. "It seems to me that we would need to sit over a bottle of vodka — a bottle of good wine wouldn't be enough — to sort things out. We would need to sit down and think it over."

Hollande responded jokingly that he would prefer port.

On a more serious note, he said that Russia and France agree on the need to avert the breakup of Syria, but differ on a way to help launch a dialogue. "We believe it's impossible to do that in cooperation with (Syrian President) Bashar Assad," Hollande said.

Russia has backed Assad throughout a conflict that has killed more than 70,000, using its veto at the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad's regime from sanctions for cracking down on what began as peaceful protests. Moscow also has rejected calls for Assad to quit, saying his government and rebels should pursue talks.

France, meanwhile, has been among the most vociferous critics of Assad and a major booster of the Syrian opposition. Before the Kremlin talks, Hollande told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that Putin's position on Syria could determine how soon peace would arrive there.

"A lot will depend on President Putin's stance," Hollande said, adding that he is encouraged by the fact that Russia has acknowledged the influence of the Syrian opposition but that he would like to see Russia promote talks on a political transition in Syria.

"We see that the Syrian opposition grows stronger and taking on legitimacy as well as some responsibility for the future of the country, and this opposition does not see itself getting engaged in a dialogue with Bashar Assad," he said. "We're going to discuss this, and hopefully will have a discussion about a transition of power."

Hollande also lauded Putin for "creating conditions" for the opposition to engage with the Syrian government. Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Damascus to hold negotiations with the opposition and offered to host them in Moscow.

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Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.


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