Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to talk about the need to move from military operations to the search for a political solution to Syria’s conflict, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
Russia is actively trying to build an international consensus around a peace deal for Syria, over two years after Moscow began a military intervention that turned the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor.
On Wednesday, Putin is to meet the leaders of Iran and Turkey, two other powers with major stakes in the Syrian conflict. He said he would follow up his talks with Assad with phone calls to U.S. President Donald Trump and to Middle Eastern leaders.
“We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up,” Putin told Assad, in comments broadcast by Russian television.
“Now the most important thing, of course, is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution (to the conflict),” Putin said.
The meeting, according to the Kremlin, happened on Monday evening in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin has a residence. However, the Kremlin did not release information about Assad’s visit until Tuesday.
“I would like very much to discuss with you the main principles for organizing the political process, and the holding of a congress of the peoples of Syria, that is supported by you,” Putin told Assad.
“I would like to hear from you your assessment of the state of affairs today, and the prospects for the developments of the situation, including your view of the political process, which, in our view, must ultimately be carried out under the aegis of the United Nations.”
Putin and Assad last met on Oct. 20, 2015, in Moscow, a few weeks after Moscow launched its military operation in Syria, which has beaten back anti-Assad rebels and propped up struggling government forces.
For Monday’s meeting in Sochi, Assad stayed on Russian soil for a total of four hours, RIA news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Assad, wearing a dark suit and sitting across a small coffee table from Putin, told the Russian leader: ”At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process.
“And we believe that the situation we now have on the ground and in the political sense permits us to expect progress in the political process. We count on the support of Russia to ensure the non-interference of outside players in the political process,” said Assad, speaking through an interpreter.
Underscoring the importance of the Russian military in propping up Assad’s rule, Putin presented the Syrian leader to a gathering of his top military command, who were also assembled at his Sochi residence.
“On behalf of the entire Syrian people, I express my gratitude for what you have done,” Assad told the roomful of Russian military officers. “We will not forget it.”
Assad’s opponents, and Western governments, have accused Russia of killing significant numbers of Syrian civilians with its air strikes, allegations Moscow denies.