The Levant News — Vladimir Putin used a rare visit to Moscow by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to talk up the Kremlin’s potential to help broker a political settlement to the crisis as he tried to show the West Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.
Assad flew to Moscow on Tuesday evening to thank Putin personally for his military support, in a surprise visit that Russian state media cast as a diplomatic coup.
It was Assad’s first foreign visit since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, and came three weeks after Russia launched a campaign of air strikes against Islamist militants and rebels in Syria that has bolstered Assad’s forces.
The Kremlin, which said it had invited Assad to visit Moscow, kept the visit quiet until Wednesday morning.
Putin told Assad he hoped progress on the military front would be followed by moves towards a political solution in Syria, bolstering Western hopes Moscow will use its increased influence to cajole Assad into talking to his opponents.
Moscow, which feels shut out by the West because of the Ukraine crisis, is keen to show its detractors it is pursuing military and diplomatic tracks simultaneously, and Putin spoke to several regional leaders after meeting Assad.
He talked by telephone to the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the presidents of Egypt and Turkey to brief them on the details of Assad’s visit.
Assad’s confidence is likely to be boosted by his Moscow visit, which comes as his forces wage counter offensives in western Syria against insurgents backed by Assad’s foreign opponents, as well as Islamic State militants.
“First of all I wanted to express my huge gratitude to the whole leadership of the Russian Federation for the help they are giving Syria,” Assad told Putin.
“If it was not for your actions and your decisions the terrorism which is spreading in the region would have swallowed up a much greater area.”
Russian officials have repeatedly said they have no special loyalty for the Syrian leader, but his audience with Putin will be seen in the West as yet another sign the Kremlin wants Assad to be part of any political solution, at least initially.
The visit also suggests that Russia, and not longtime ally Iran, has now emerged as Assad’s most important foreign friend.
Russian state TV made the meeting its top news item, showing Assad, dressed in a dark blue suit, talking to Putin, together with the Russian foreign and defense ministers.
The Kommersant daily cited unnamed sources saying meetings between the two delegations had lasted over three hours. The Syrian presidency Twitter account said Assad and Putin held three rounds of talks – one of them a closed meeting and the other two including Russia’s foreign and defense ministers.
The Kremlin has cast its intervention in Syria, its biggest in the Middle East since the 1991 Soviet collapse, as a common sense move designed to roll back international terrorism in the face of what it says is ineffective action from Washington.
It has been trying to get the United States to embark on a serious dialogue with Moscow over Syria. So far, it has only succeeded in clinching a technical deal with Washington about the safety of both countries’ air forces in Syria.
Moscow is likely to use Assad’s visit to buttress its domestic narrative that its air campaign is just and effective and to underline its assertion that its actions show it has shaken off the Ukraine crisis to become a serious global player.
Russia has a combined force of around 50 jets and helicopters in Latakia protected by Russian marines. It also has military trainers and advisers working with the Syrian army.
Russia’s air force says it has flown over 700 sorties against more than 690 targets in Syria since Sept. 30.