Assad makes surprise visit to Russia’s Sochi, meets with Putin

Assad was reported to have said that “stability is improving”.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar Assad during in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on May 17. (AP)
Crucial support. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar Assad during in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on May 17. (AP)

TUNIS - Syrian President Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 17 and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, further underscoring Moscow’s role as Assad’s chief backer.

The two leaders are believed to have discussed the progress of Damascus’ seven-year war against Syria’s rebels, especially in light of the crucial military support lent by Russia, and the future of the country’s multiple peace negotiation tracks.

 “Stability is improving, and all that opens the doors to the political process, which we started a while ago,” Assad told Putin, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin website.

Assad was quoted as saying, “I have always said, and I repeat it again, that we have always wholeheartedly supported the political process, which should proceed in parallel with the war on terrorism.

“We know that will not be easy since there are countries which do not want stability to return to Syria. However, together with you and our other partners and friends, we will move firmly forward with the peace process,” Assad said.

Russia is sponsoring a peace process of its own at Astana, Kazakhstan. The Russian-led process runs alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, which, thus far, have made little progress, with Assad’s future proving a frequent stumbling block to talks.

Assad was reported to have said that “stability is improving… opening the door to the political process we started some time ago.”

“We know it will not be easy because some countries do not want stability to return to Syria. But with you (Russia) and other partners and friends, we will continue to make strong progress in the peace process,” Assad was reported as saying.

“Thanks to military successes, we are managing to normalise the situation in the country, opening the way for the return of many of our compatriots.”

In remarks cited by the Kremlin, Putin congratulated the Syrian leader on what he described as significant battlefield successes.

“The terrorists have laid down their arms in key locations in Syria, which has allowed for the restoration of Syrian infrastructure,” Putin was quoted as saying.

According to Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Assad informed the Russian leader of his decision to “send a delegation to the UN” to discuss reforming the country’s constitution.

This was the third known time that Assad, who has rarely travelled abroad since hostilities broke out in 2011, has visited Russia.

Russia has played a decisive role in Syria’s civil war since its 2015 intervention turned the tide of the conflict in Damascus’s favour. In addition to military support, Russia has provided Syria with diplomatic cover over numerous allegations of human rights abuses and the suspected use of chemical weapons.

The same day the Russian and Syrian leaders met, a report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (OPCW) confirmed the likely deployment of chlorine gas in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb in February. In line with its mandate, the OPCW did not attribute responsibility for the use of the gas, but the report provided a clear reminder that Syria’s conflict remains far from resolved.

Syria’s conflict began with the popular 2011 street protests against the Assad family’s decades-long rule. Damascus launched a crackdown in response, leading to an armed insurgency that eventually came to be dominated by religious extremists.

More than 450,000 people have reportedly been killed and around 11 million have been displaced from their homes.

Putin and Assad met ahead of a further Sochi meeting between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first face-to-face talk of the year between the leaders.