MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in the Kremlin on Monday (Sept 13), backing the Syrian leader’s efforts to eliminate the last enclaves of rebels backed by the US and Turkey.
Under Western sanctions and ostracised by the Arab League after a decade-long civil war, Mr Assad has maintained strong ties with Russia, which sent planes and troops to back his government in 2015.
The intervention helped turn the tide of the war against disparate rebel groups that had succeeded in capturing swathes of the country.
Those fighters are now cornered in the province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey, which deployed troops to prevent the bastions falling to Mr Assad.
A small contingent of US forces remains in the Kurdish-controlled north-east, keeping much of Syria’s oil resources out of Damascus’s hands.
In the meeting, Mr Putin called the continued presence of foreign troops not authorised by the Assad government Syria’s “main problem”.
Russia has repeatedly called on the US and Turkey to withdraw their forces.
“Our joint efforts have liberated the main, overwhelming territory of the Syrian Republic,” putting 90 per cent of the country under the control of government troops, Mr Putin said, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin website early on Tuesday.
The visit represents a rare foreign trip for the isolated Syrian leader.
Syria’s war deepened fault lines in the Middle East as Iran, Russia, Turkey and Gulf Arab states lined up on different sides of a conflict that drove millions of refugees to the region and Europe.
Moscow has also sought to push Arab countries to rebuild their ties with Mr Assad in an effort to imbue him with regional legitimacy and to check the influence of Iran, Mr Assad’s other major supporter.
Syria’s state news agency said the two leaders discussed the need to “complete” efforts to reach an agreement among Syrians without foreign intervention during an “extended summit” in which they were joined by their foreign ministers.
The Kremlin is hoping that the US pull-out from Afghanistan and Washington’s need for anti-terrorism cooperation may bolster the chances of some arrangement over Syria, said Moscow-based Middle East expert Elena Suponina.
“The goal now is to try and increase Assad’s control of Syria,” Ms Suponina said by phone.
Removing Turkey’s presence appears unlikely for now, she said.
In power since 2000, Mr Assad has emerged triumphant from the country’s bruising civil war, winning a fourth seven-year term as president in May, in elections dismissed by the US and European nations as a sham.
In the meeting on Monday, Mr Putin congratulated him on his victory.
Mr Assad and Mr Putin speak regularly and Mr Putin last visited Syria in January 2020.