Assad makes surprise visit to Moscow
Embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad met Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow in which they agreed to seek a diplomatic settlement to the war in Syria where an estimated 250,000 people have been killed since 2011.
“On the question of a settlement in Syria, our position is that positive results in military operations will lay the basis for then working out a long-term settlement, based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups,” Putin said in remarks released by the Kremlin. “Ultimately, it is the Syrian people alone who must have the deciding voice here.”
It is not clear whether the need for a political solution that both men put so much emphasis on marks a new phase in Moscow’s efforts to lay out a diplomatic road map alongside its contentious military intervention in Syria that would include Assad remaining in power, at least initially.
There is uncertainty there. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov maintained Assad’s future was not discussed. Turkey, which virulently opposes Assad, declared on October 19th — the day before Assad talked with Putin in Moscow — that it would only accept a six-month transitional period with Assad, although the Americans support a diplomatic effort that could include Assad.
The Kremlin’s account of the talks stressed that it was Putin who called the meeting, in effect summoning Assad, and emphasised that Moscow must be involved in deciding Syria’s political future as well as the military actions now under way.
Putin’s move seemed to be intended to underline Assad’s dependence on Russia for his survival. The Russian anti-rebel air strikes campaign launched September 30th, along with hefty reinforcements of Iranian forces, is intended to bolster Assad’s control of the one-fifth of Syria his badly weakened forces still hold.
Once that is achieved — and the current heavy fighting indicates that should not be taken for granted — Russia favours a political transition in Damascus in which it will have a major say as part of Putin’s drive to restore Moscow’s Cold War authority and establish a military presence in the Mediterranean, a long-time Russian ambition.
Word of Assad’s visit came from the Kremlin on October 21st, when the Syrian leader was already flying back to Damascus, the first time he had left Syria since the war began in 2011.
Assad’s surprise trip to Moscow came amid fierce fighting in Syria as his military, badly weakened by combat losses and defections it cannot easily replace, gained key support from Russian and Iranian forces in four major offensives in the north, central and south of the country. This includes a build-up of Iranian forces who now comprise the backbone of the regime offences on the ground, while the Russian intervention remains restricted to daily air strikes against rebel strong points.
The Iranians, including Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah appeared to be taking heavy losses.