Russian President Vladimir Putin held a surprise meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, kicking off a diplomatic drive this week to outline the terms of an end to the Middle Eastern country’s bloody civil war. Putin said he’ll speak by phone with U.S. President Donald Trump later Tuesday.
Putin has taken a dominant role in efforts to resolve the conflict after a two-year Russian military campaign helped Assad to fight off opponents, including some backed by the U.S. With Islamic State nearly defeated in Syria, the Kremlin is moving on to bring together regional and global powers to revive long-stalled efforts to reach a settlement expected to cement the Syrian president in power.
Putin meets the leaders of Iran and Turkey — key players in Syria which have joined Russia to back steps toward ending the war this year — in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday to discuss the political resolution. The Kremlin said he held talks with the Emir of Qatar on Monday and plans to speak to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz on Tuesday.
“The most important question, of course, is what will happen after the defeat of the terrorists in terms of a peaceful political settlement,” Putin told Assad during their meeting in Sochi on Monday, which lasted almost three hours, according to a Kremlin transcript. He noted the Syrian leader’s support for a Russia-backed peace plan.
Putin told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani before the meeting that he’d work with Assad to ensure agreements on Syria that may be reached at their three-way summit are “viable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.
Expressing thanks for Russia’s role, Assad told Putin the time is right for negotiations, “especially after we attained victory” over the Syrian government’s opponents. He added: “We’re counting on Russia’s support to ensure the non-intervention of outside players in the political process, so that their role is to support the efforts of the Syrians themselves.”
Assad’s visit, which wasn’t publicly announced until the following day, echoed a similar trip to Russia that he made in 2015 shortly after Putin launched his air and ground campaign in Syria. The campaign turned the tide in the war in favor of the embattled Syrian president, whom western nations have long sought to see removed.
Putin’s triumphant tone underscores his success in turning the tables on the U.S., which under Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama pressed for Assad’s removal and came close in 2013 to ordering strikes on Syria in retaliation for a chemical attack blamed on the regime. Six and a half years after an uprising in Syria morphed into a regional proxy war and terrorist conflict that killed 400,000 and displaced millions, Russia’s Syrian ally is now looking for a stamp of international legitimacy.
Putin presented Assad to the military commanders who led Russia’s effort. “I want to introduce to you the people who played a decisive role in saving Syria,” Putin said.
“Today, on behalf of the Syrian people, I extend my gratitude to you for what you did,” Assad said. “We will never forget it.”
Russia has been working actively with Saudi Arabia and other backers of Assad’s opponents such as Turkey to restart the peace process. On Wednesday, the Saudi government hosts a meeting in Riyadh of opposition groups that aims to combine them into a single delegation for peace talks in Geneva.
The unified bloc, including factions less hostile to Assad, would be a “tame” counterparty for the Syrian regime at the negotiating table, said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who’s now a fellow at Yale University and the Middle East Institute in Washington.
On Monday, Riad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who defected and headed the main Western-backed opposition group for the past two years, resigned without giving any explanation, according to a statement on his official Twitter account.
Hijab’s High Negotiations Committee earlier this month refused to attend a planned Russian-organized peace conference between Assad and opposition groups in Sochi, saying it was usurping the role of long-stalled negotiations in Geneva led by the United Nations. Russia has now revived the proposal for the Sochi meeting, which is expected to take place soon.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Scott Rose, Henry Meyer