Assad-Putin talks centre on political solution to end Syria conflict
MOSCOW - Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad has made a surprise visit to Moscow in his first known trip overseas since his country's conflict erupted, meeting key ally President Vladimir Putin.
Assad thanked Putin for launching air strikes in Syria against opponents seeking his overthrow, with both leaders also agreeing during the talks late Tuesday that military operations must be followed by political steps.
As part of a flurry of diplomacy, Russia announced afterwards that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would meet Friday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and their Turkish and Saudi counterparts to discuss Syria.
Putin and Assad's talks focused mainly on military developments, with the Russian leader pledging ongoing support but also urging a political solution to end the war, the Kremlin said.
Assad, who last visited Russia in 2008, told Putin that the three-week-old Russian air war -- which has prompted an outcry in the West -- had helped to stop the spread of "terrorism" in his country, the Kremlin said.
The strikes are reported to have killed 370 people so far, a third of them civilians, according to a monitoring group.
Russia says the campaign targets the extremist Islamic State group and others it describes as "terrorists".
But rebels and the West accuse Moscow of seeking to prop up Assad and of striking moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than just jihadists.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assad's "working visit" was at the invitation of the Kremlin. The Syrian presidency said Wednesday that Assad had returned to Damascus.
Peskov declined to say whether the "lengthy" talks, which included a one-on-one between the leaders and a joint dinner, brought any firm results, or whether Assad's fate had been discussed.
Russia's foreign and defence ministers also participated in a meeting between the two leaders.
Putin said Russia was ready to do all it could to help secure peace in Syria, which has been ravaged by the conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes, sparking a mass migration of around four million refugees.
"We are ready to make our contribution not only during armed hostilities in the fight against terrorism but also during a political process," Putin said.
Assad also stressed the importance of "further political steps" and praised Russia for its military and political efforts, the Kremlin said.
"I need to say that the political steps which Russia has taken since the start of the crisis prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario," he said.
Putin also emphasised that the Syrian people should decide their country's fate, a thinly veiled jab at the United States and other opposition backers who insist Assad must go in any peaceful settlement.
"Based on positive results in military operations at the end of the day a long-term settlement can be achieved on the basis of a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups," the Kremlin strongman said.
"And ultimately, the final word no doubt should rest solely with the Syrian people."
After the talks, Russia said Lavrov would meet with his US, Saudi and Turkish counterparts to discuss Syria in Vienna on Friday.
And Putin spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia's King Salman about Assad's visit, the Kremlin said.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States are all key backers of the Syrian opposition and have criticised Moscow's military intervention in support of Assad's regime.
They have also long insisted Assad cannot be part of Syria's future, though some experts see a softening of the international line on whether the embattled leader could stay on during a political transition.
Russia has carried out more than 500 air raids in Syria since its campaign began last month.
The strikes have killed 370 people, including over 120 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
The Russian defence ministry said Wednesday its forces had hit 83 targets in Syria over the past 24 hours in five provinces.
The strikes have been accompanied by a series of Syrian government ground offensives, in some places reportedly backed by an influx of Iranian forces, as well as Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday that around 35,000 people had been displaced by one of the offensives, south of Syria's second city Aleppo.
The displaced have mostly found shelter elsewhere in the region, but a Turkish government source said Ankara was preparing for the possibility of a wave of new refugees fleeing the battle for Aleppo.