June 1st, 2012
11:06 AM ET

Putin: Russia not 'propping up' Syrian regime

By Jill Dougherty

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday denied that Russia is providing weapons that are killing Syrian civilians.

"We don't supply weapons that can be used in civil conflicts," he said.

A Russian-flagged ship docked this week in the Syrian port of Tartus, and some human rights groups say it was carrying weapons to be used in the conflict in Syria. The U.S. State Department said Thursday that it was looking into the matter but could not confirm that the ship was carrying arms.

Speaking with reporters in Berlin after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin also struck back at claims by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia is "propping up the regime" of Bashar al-Assad.

"Those who say that Russia is propping up any regime, in this case President Assad unilaterally, all those people are wrong. We have good and long relations with Syria, but we do not support either of the sides."

Putin said he agreed with Merkel that everything must be done to avoid a civil war in Syria. "Today, we see developing elements of civil war, and it's very dangerous," he added.

On Friday, Clinton said in Oslo, Noway, that if Russia is ready to work with other world powers "to come together to plan a political transition, we will certainly be ready to cooperate."

But she hammered home her claim that Russia is helping Syria.

There's been a "very consistent arms trade" over the last year of violence from Russia to Syria, she said.

"We also believe that the continuing supply of arms from Russia has strengthened the Assad regime. What those arms are being used for, we cannot speak with any accuracy, but the fact that Russia has continued to sustain this trade in the face of efforts by the international community to impose sanctions and to prevent further arms flowing to the Assad regime, and in particular the Syrian military has raised serious concerns on our part," Clinton said.

This reflects the Obama administration's efforts to get Russia to use its pull with the regime.

Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama's special assistant and principal deputy press secretary, said Russia "has a significant investment in Syria and it's in their own self-interest" to help end the violence.

"The violence needs to end and a political transition needs to begin," Earnest said. "The only way the situation will be resolved in Syria is for Assad to leave power."

The Russian president said he still supports the six-point plan of Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy. The United States and other countries have said the plan is failing its primary mission: stopping the violence.

"We shouldn't say it's going to fail," he said. "We shouldn't have a negative prognosis. Annan is a former U.N. secretary general and a very experienced man. Our task is to stop the violence, and we agreed with the chancellor that we must use all our efforts - Germany, Russia and all our partners - not to allow the escalation of the violence."

The focus should be on a political solution, not on using force, Putin said. "We will maintain contact with President Assad and the leadership of Syria and with regional countries, Arab countries ... in order to find a political solution."

The German chancellor, meanwhile, agreed with the Russian president, avoiding expressing any opinion on whether Moscow is propping up the Assad regime. She told reporters that she "has the impression that nobody wants a civil war ... everything must be done to avoid a civil war."

"Everybody has to try to do his best to help a political solution," she said. "That is what we talked about and how can we at the U.N. do more work and make sure that the Annan plan doesn't sink into chaos. And then also try to make the political situation in Syria better. And we had a quiet discussion about that."

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