Russian President Vladimir Putin says civilian casualties in Syria are the fault of "the insurgents and their foreign supporters," and not of President Bashar al-Assad.
In an interview published Tuesday by Germany's Bild newspaper, Putin said Assad only fights those who take up arms against the government, and that while he "has done much wrong" during Syria's nearly five-year war, he not responsible for the scale of violence.
"The conflict would never have become so big if it had not been fueled by outside of Syria -- with weapons, money and fighters," Putin told Bild. "Who is responsible for that? The Assad government, which is trying to hold the country together? Or the rebels who want to tear it apart and fight against this government?"
Russia is a Syrian ally, and in late September began a campaign of airstrikes that Western nations have criticized as targeting rebels and not Islamic State militants. Putin said his warplanes do not bomb civilian targets and that Russia has evidence to prove its critics wrong.
As the U.N. makes a push to bring the Syrian sides to a new round of peace talks later this month in Geneva, Putin said he does not want to see Syria become like Iraq or Libya.
"But this does not mean that everything can just stay the same. Once the stabilization of the country has progressed, a constitutional reform has to follow, and then early presidential elections. Only the Syrian people can decide who should govern the country in the future," said Putin.
The U.N. is operating under a framework that calls for a cease-fire within six months, a new constitution and then new elections next year. Two previous rounds of U.N.-brokered peace talks ended in early 2014 with little progress, and it is not yet clear who exactly will be at the negotiating table in Geneva.
Putin said before an election it is too early to discuss Assad's future, including whether he would remain in Syria. The Russian leader hinted it would be no problem for his country to welcome Assad, saying it was more difficult to grant asylum to former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden who fled to Russia in 2013 after leaking classified documents.
For now, Putin said Russia will continue its military operations in Syria supporting both Assad's forces and rebel groups that are battling Islamic State.