MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday that change was needed in Damascus, further distancing Moscow from Syrian President Bashar Assad in another sign that Assad's support may be fraying even among his few remaining allies.
Putin made the comments as a U.N. panel concluded that Syria's raging conflict had become "overtly sectarian" after almost two years of violence and tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin said Russia would not back Assad, long a close ally, "at any price," and he used some of the Kremlin's strongest language to date, indicating that Russia recognized that Assad's days were numbered.
"We are not concerned with the fate of Assad's regime," Putin told journalists in Moscow. "We understand what is going on, given that the (Assad) family has been in power for 40 years and that the need for change is certainly on the agenda."
Iran floated its own peace plan last weekend that could, in theory, lead to elections that would see Assad replaced. Like Moscow, however, Tehran has rejected calls from Washington and elsewhere for the departure of Assad. Putin provided no hint that Russia was close to signing off on any deal that would guarantee Assad's ouster.
In Geneva, meantime, a new U.N.-commissioned report outlined a dire scenario in the war-ravaged nation and asserted that ethnic and religious differences are now stoking the escalating violence.
"Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country, or of being killed inside the country," reported the U.N.-impaneled Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in an interim report.