Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held talks in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in his first known foreign visit since the civil war erupted in 2011, underscoring the widening rift between world powers over how to tackle the conflict.
Long-term settlement of the Syrian crisis requires “a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups,” Putin told Assad in comments shown on Russian state television on Wednesday. “The final word, of course, must rest solely with the Syrian people.”
Russia is standing for “the unity of Syria and its independence” and without its military intervention, terrorists would have taken control of even more territory, Assad said. He thanked “the entire leadership of the Russian Federation and the Russian people for the assistance they provide to Syria.”
This is Assad’s first foreign visit since the conflict began, Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said Wednesday. Russia’s campaign of air strikes, which began Sept. 30, seeks to help Assad retake as much as possible of the territory his forces have lost to opponents, including U.S.-backed rebels, Russian officials told Bloomberg News. Moscow’s deployment of several dozen planes, as well as ships in the Black and Caspian Seas, could last a year or more, one official said.
The U.S., the European Union and Turkey say that Assad must stand down as part of any resolution of the conflict. They say Russia is targeting Assad’s opponents and not Islamic State with the air strikes. Putin accused some states last week of having “oatmeal in their heads” for failing to understand that Russia’s military campaign aims to defeat terrorism.
Russia’s ready to “make a contribution not only in connection with military actions in the fight against terrorism but also in the political process,” Putin told Assad. He thanked him for accepting Russia’s invitation to Moscow.
Putin talked with Assad about “the continuation of Russian operations in support of offensive actions by the Syrian Armed forces,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. “The President was informed in detail by his Syrian colleague about the situation in Syria and about future plans,” while Russian and Syrian officials also held talks, Peskov said.
The visit to Russia “shows the world Moscow is firmly on the side of Assad,” Georgy Mirsky, of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, said by phone Wednesday. “There can’t be any discussion of Putin going toward the West and denying him support. This is an alliance, there are two people here who are going toward victory together.”
Assad’s visit is “Russia’s way of saying he is in our pocket, he is our asset and we will decide whether to keep him,” Nader said. “This is for sure a preparation for a deal and one more attempt by the Russians to embolden their bargaining position.”