Putin and Assad discuss Syria’s reconstruction and regional issues

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Syrian leader Bashar Assad to the Kremlin on Wednesday for talks focused on rebuilding Syria after a devastating civil war and efforts to stabilize the region.

Welcoming Assad at the start of the meeting, which took place on the 12-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising-turned-civil war, Putin stressed the Russian military’s “decisive contribution” to stabilizing the country.

Russia has been waging a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, partnering with Iran to enable Assad’s government to fight armed opposition groups and regain control of most of the country. While Russia now concentrates the bulk of its military resources in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military entrenchment in Syria and has kept fighter jets and troops at its bases there.

Assad thanked Putin for supporting Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, noting that the Kremlin’s support remained strong despite the fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though Russia is also leading the special operation, its position has remained unchanged,” Assad said, using the Kremlin’s term “special military operation” for Russian action in Ukraine and expressing support for Moscow’s effort. .

The two rounds of talks between the leaders, the first involving senior officials from both countries and then a one-on-one meeting over lunch, lasted more than three hours. Russian and Syrian defense ministers also met separately to discuss military cooperation.

Assad’s office said on Twitter that the two leaders discussed “joint cooperation in various forms and developments in the regional and international arenas.” He noted that Assad “renewed Syria’s position in support of Russia’s right to defend its national security.”

Moscow provided strong political support to Assad at the United Nations and actively acted as a mediator to help restore his government’s ties with regional powers.

Some Arab countries that had in the past called for Assad’s downfall sent aid following the catastrophic February 6 earthquake which hit Turkey and Syria killing more than 50,000 people, including more than 6,000 in Syria.

International sympathy after the earthquake seems to have accelerated regional rapprochement, some calling for dialogue with Syria and bringing the country back into the Arab League to 22 members more than a decade after its membership was suspended following the crackdown in the first months of the uprising that turned into war.

As part of the ongoing rapprochement, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan recently made their first visit to Damascus since the start of the conflict in March 2011 and met with Assad.

On Wednesday, Assad also thanked Putin for sending rescue teams and enlisting his Syria-based army to lead rescue efforts and help deal with the aftermath of the quake.

Before the earthquakeRussia had played a mediating role in the talks between Turkey and Syria.

Turkey has backed armed opposition groups in Syria that sought to overthrow Assad’s government during the civil war, which killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population. Syria has demanded that Turkey withdraw from an enclave it controls in northwestern Syria so that Damascus normalizes relations with Ankara.

In December, Moscow hosted surprise talks between Syrian and Turkish defense ministers. Arab media reported that one of the main topics Assad will discuss with Putin when they meet on Wednesday is reconciliation between Syria and Turkey.

Asked ahead of Putin’s talks with Assad if they could play a role in restoring Syria’s ties with Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied that “the issue of Syrian-Turkish relations will do without no doubt part of the agenda of the talks”.

Even though Turkey has backed Syrian opposition fighters in the north, Ankara and Damascus share their dismay at the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria. Turkish-backed opposition fighters have clashed with the SDF in the past, accusing them of being an offshoot of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK has been waging an insurgency in Turkey against the Ankara government for decades.

Assad’s government portrayed the SDF as a secessionist force that plundered the country’s wealth while controlling Syria’s major oil fields.

Assad’s office said in a statement after the talks that Putin and Assad talked about “regional initiatives supported by Moscow”. He said Assad stressed that Syria supports dialogue “if it leads to the realization of the interests of the Syrian people and the unity and integrity of the Syrian territory and leads to clear results, including the first is the continuation of the fight against terrorism and the exit of illegal foreign forces present in its territory.” The statement did not elaborate.

The Syrian, Turkish and Russian deputy foreign ministers and a senior Iranian envoy were due to meet in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss “counter-terrorism efforts” in Syria, although the Syrian deputy foreign minister Foreign Affairs Ayman Sousan was quoted by pro-government media as saying the meeting “is still under discussion”.


Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut.

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