BRUSSELS â€” President Russia on Friday added to recent signals that Moscow is slowly distancing itself from the regime of Syriaâ€™s president, Bashar al-Assad, its longstanding but now severely weakened ally.of
Asserting that Russiaâ€™s main goal is to avoid chaos, Mr. Putin restated Russiaâ€™s position that Syriaâ€™s civil war could be resolved only through talks between the parties involved. But he insisted that â€œwe arenâ€™t a defender of the current Syrian leadershipâ€ and said Moscow wants â€œa democratic regime in Syria based on the expression of the peopleâ€™s will.â€
He made the remarks at a joint news conference in Brussels with European Union leaders at the end of mostly fruitless talks centered on quarrels over energy and trade at the headquarters of the 27-nation bloc.
European nations are themselves divided over what to do about Syria but have increasingly tilted toward providing at least diplomatic support for the opponents of Mr. Assad.
Russia has been the Syrian governmentâ€™s main backer since an uprising against Mr. Assad began in 2011 and, along with China, has used its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block resolutions that would have imposed penalties on Syria.
But a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official said recently that Mr. Assadâ€™s government could lose its struggle for survival and that Moscow was making contingency plans to evacuate citizens from the country.
At the same time, Russiaâ€™s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said in an interview with Russia Today, a government news organization, that Moscow was still rejecting appeals from other countries to help persuade the Syrian leader to flee.
Mr. Putin described Russiaâ€™s policy, which has put it at odds with Washington and also Arab countries that support Mr. Assadâ€™s opponents, as intended to avoid mayhem. â€œWe will do what we can so that there will be order in Syria,â€ he said. â€œWhatever changes are occurring in Syria, we would not like to see the same chaos there which we are seeing in other countries in the region.â€
Mr. Putinâ€™s talks in Brussels focused mainly on energy, an issue of far more immediate importance to his own hold on power in Russia, where earnings from natural gas exports to Europe are a central pillar of an economic and political system built around state control of natural resources.
Mr. Putin pressed the European Union to exempt the natural gas behemoth Gazprom from rules aimed at promoting greater competition in the energy market. But he won no favors for the company, Russiaâ€™s biggest.
Russia is Europeâ€™s main external energy supplier, and disputes over natural gas have dominated discussions between Moscow and the bloc for years. Fridayâ€™s talks yielded no significant progress, said a European Union official briefed on them. While the visit to Brussels produced no breakthroughs, it did avoid the angry polemics of some previous meetings.
â€œWeâ€™ve had worse summits,â€ the official said.
In Syria, meanwhile, activists reported fierce fighting in Hama Province, where rebel forces have spent days attacking checkpoints and other government positions. Opposition commanders described the moves as part of a broad offensive aimed at controlling a strategic link between the north, where the rebels control broad areas of territory, and the government strongholds in the center.
Abu Hadi, an activist in the village of Kafar Zita, north of Hama city, said the village and others had come under heavy government shelling on Friday. â€œThe situation is very bad,â€ he said. â€œPeople are panicking in the streets.â€
Mr. Putin, who started his third term as president in May after taking a four-year break to serve as prime minister, dropped the combative language that has characterized previous appearances in Brussels. At the end of the news conference, he threw his arm over the shoulder of the European Commission president, JosÃ© Manuel Barroso. The two men had earlier sparred over European Union energy regulations that Mr. Putin described as â€œdiscriminatoryâ€ but that Mr. Barroso defended as applying to all countries, not just Russia.
The bloc has demanded that Gazprom open its export pipelines that run through member countries to other gas producers.
Mr. Putin complained that European energy regulation violated an earlier agreement on Russia-European Union economic relations, a claim the Europeans rejected. â€œIt creates confusion and undermines confidence in our mutual work,â€ he said ahead of talks with Mr. Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, which represents the governments of the member states.