By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad by phone in their first talks in more than two years, praising his readiness to send delegates to peace talks and destroy chemical arms, the Kremlin said.
An official statement gave few details of the conversation on Thursday between Assad and Putin, whose support has helped the Syrian government avoid tougher international sanctions and avert U.S. military strikes.
The Kremlin's description appeared intended to portray Assad as taking a constructive approach to ending the bloodshed and to underline Moscow's potential role as an interlocutor.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was their first conversation in at least two years, making it the first since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 after a stint as prime minister.
The Kremlin statement said Putin, who made the phone call, and Assad had discussed the long-delayed peace conference which the United States and Moscow are trying to arrange in Geneva.
"Putin underscored the efforts by Russia and its partners to prepare for the Geneva 2 international conference and gave a positive assessment to Bashar al-Assad's readiness to send a Syrian government delegation to this event," it said.
"The hope was expressed that the main opposition groups will show a constructive approach and take part in the conference."
Putin "expressed satisfaction" with Syria's cooperation in the destruction of its chemical arms under an agreement which defused the threat of U.S. military strikes after a deadly poison gas attack Washington blames on Assad's forces.
Assad denies responsibility for the attack, which killed hundreds of people, and Moscow says there is insufficient evidence to pin the blame on the Syrian leader's army.
Putin also urged Assad's government to do all it can to alleviate the suffering of civilians and voiced concern over what he called persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by extremists in Syria, apparently blaming this on Islamist militants fighting Assad's government.
Mostly Orthodox Christian Russia is fighting Islamist insurgents at home and has expressed concern about Islamist forces among the rebels in Syria. It has warned that Western intervention in Syria could cause the violence to spread.
Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer in the conflict, sending arms and blocking Western efforts to condemn or pressure him.
Moscow says it is not trying to prop up Assad, but maintains his exit cannot be a precondition of peace talks.
Putin has said Russia has no special relationship with Syria, which buys weapons from Moscow and hosts its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Russia has also accused Assad of mishandling protests in 2011 and failing to avert the slide into civil war.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Roche)