The White House has condemned Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow, chiding Vladimir Putin for rolling out a “red carpet welcome” for a leader “who has used chemical weapons against his own people.”
“We view the red carpet welcome for Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, at odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz at a press conference Wednesday. Schultz added that the meeting between Assad and Putin, in which the former expressed gratitude for Russia’s airstrike campaign against Syrian rebels (and, allegedly, the Islamic State terrorist organization), “doesn’t change anything about the situation in Syria.”
“We still believe that Russia propping up Assad after he’s turned his country into a civil war, after allowing extremists to flourish and creating the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II is only exacerbated by welcoming President Assad to Moscow,” he said.
The United States joins the leader of other states opposed to Assad’s rule, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in condemning the meeting. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday of the trip that he hoped Assad “would stay longer in Moscow” and never come back, so that “a real transition process could begin.”
“We think the Syrian government has no legitimacy left and our thoughts on this subject have not changed. … There must be a transition in Syria which secures Assad’s departure,” Davutoğlu said. Putin, whose ties to Turkey have been strained by his alliance with Assad, called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to brief him shortly after welcoming Assad.
The government of Saudi Arabia has also condemned the Assad regime, blaming Assad’s brutality for the growth of ISIS in Syria. Assad, said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, “attracted foreign fighters from all over the world to fight on the side of Daesh (Islamic State) against Assad’s regime.” Al-Jubeir echoed comments by representatives of both the United States and Turkey in calling for a “transitional period” in which new leadership would be chosen in Syria.
While Assad’s enemies have not changed their stances, one ally appears to be cooling on its relationship with him. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Wednesday that, while Iran supports Assad, it would not work to keep him in power “forever”: “We are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president. But we are very cognisant of his role in the fight against terrorism and the national unity of that country.” He added, “The people of Syria will make the final decision.”
In the Wednesday meeting, Assad made sure to “express…huge gratitude” to Putin and the greater Russian leadership “for the help they are giving Syria,” crediting them with preventing “terrorism” from “swallow[ing] up a much greater area” than it already has. Russian officials credited Assad, in turn, with almost single-handedly fighting off “terrorists,” a term both Russia and Syria use as a catch-all for both ISIS and anti-Assad militias, many of which are also fighting ISIS.
Following the meeting, reports have surfaced that Russia is looking to stage another election in Syria to make Assad’s support from the common people appear large enough to give him a mandate to fight anyone he deems a “terrorist.” According to Bloomberg, a “senior official in Moscow” said Russia is pushing for new elections in which Assad would decide whether he wants to run. Should he win, allies hope the election will help garner him more international support.
The last Syrian presidential election, in which Assad was re-elected by upwards of 80 percent of the vote, occurred in 2014 and was decreed a “sham” by the U.S. Department of State.
Following the White House remarks, Russian propaganda outlet Russia Today clarified that, since Assad had personally called claims he used chemical weapons both “an insult to common sense” and “nonsense,” the evidence that he actually had used chemical weapons against civilians is irrelevant.