Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Russian head of state Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in a surprise visit to Moscow to personally thank Putin for airstrikes that have significantly weakened the Syrian opposition.
The meeting marks the first time Assad has left Syria since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011.
Reports from both the Kremlin and Syrian state media outlet SANA note that Putin had personally invited Assad to Moscow, and expressed gratitude to Assad for accepting the invitation. Assad, meanwhile, said he was extremely thankful for Russia’s support of his regime, in the face of much of the world calling for Assad to step down and allow the nation to transition its leadership to someone new.
“First of all I wanted to express my huge gratitude to the whole leadership of the Russian Federation for the help they are giving Syria,” Assad reportedly told Putin, “If it was not for your actions and your decisions the terrorism which is spreading in the region would have swallowed up a much greater area and spread over an even greater territory.”
Putin replied that Russia is “ready to make our contribution not only to the military operations and the fight against terrorism, but also to the political process.” He also emphasized that Russia had self-interested reasons to help Assad: more Russian nationals than citizens of any other non-Muslim country have left to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq, and Russia is committed to ensuring that they do not return home. Rival groups ISIS and Al Qaeda, along with senior Saudi clerics, have called for a jihad on Russia following their commitment to bombing Syria.
In clear but subtle barbs to the United States, Putin complimented the Syrian army for combatting terrorism “almost on their own,” with Assad agreeing and noting that, while he believes a political solution to the war is possible, “Terrorism is a real obstacle to a political solution.”
Assad has repeatedly accused the United States not just of doing little to stop terrorist groups, but of creating the Islamic State in particular.
The Kremlin has released video of the meeting, in which Assad and Putin are seen surrounded by high-level advisors.
Following the meeting, Putin called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan– arguably the loudest opponent of Assad remaining in power on the global stage– to brief him on the meeting. Erdogan, reports indicate, used the time to express “concerns over the Syrian military’s recent strikes in Aleppo and its environs, which he said could trigger a new wave of refugees,” as well as remind Russia that fighting Kurdish groups is in Turkey’s interests as much as fighting the Islamic State. While actively fighting ISIS and not directly allied with Assad, groups like the YPG/YPJ have warned that toppling Assad with no plan to succeed him would lead to “disaster.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wasted little time in telling the public what he thought of the Moscow meeting. “What can I say?” he asked. “I wish he stayed in Moscow for a longer period so the Syrian people could feel relieved. In fact, it would be better if he didn’t return and the transition period started.”
After emphasizing that Assad must be removed from power, he repeated his wish that Assad “didn’t return.”
Davutoglu’s remarks raise questions regarding Erdogan’s statement this week that he would accept a transition period in which Assad may stay in power. “[Assad] can stay for six months and we accept that because there will be a guarantee of his departure,” Erdogan said of a transition process, adding, “We have moved forward on the issue to a certain degree with the United States and our other allies. There is not an exact consensus on when the six-month period would begin, but we think it won’t be too long.”
Erdogan had previously stated that a transition “with Assad is possible,” but shortly thereafter accused those quoting him of being on “malicious quests” to smear him.