In an impromptu meeting at the sidelines of the G-20 summit currently underway in Turkey, President Barack Obama met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and, according to the White House, both parties agreed on a “political transition” in Syria. The meeting precedes a report claiming Putin has already begun pressuring Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The Times of Israel is citing “senior Israeli officials” as reporting that Putin has come around to Assad stepping down and allowing for a democratic process to choose a new leader of Syria. Putin is considered Assad’s strongest and most formidable ally, and the Kremlin has publicly agreed with the Damascus line on the Syrian civil war: that Assad is a democratically-elected president and anyone opposing him is a “terrorist.”
The Times report claims Putin has come around to the widely-held belief in the international community, including among American and Turkish officials, that Assad must step down in order for the civil war to end, allowing for a transition process in which the moderate Syrian opposition not affiliated with the Islamic State may have a say. The report claims that Putin “posed an ultimatum” to Assad to step down in the coming months, and that he begin talks with the moderate opposition to begin a transition process that would take a year and a half to complete.
Should Assad refuse this plan, the report claims, Putin threatened to withdraw Russian military assets from Syria, currently indispensable to the Syrian military in fighting non-ISIS rebel groups.
The Times claims this conversation occurred in October during a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow, in which Assad stated publicly his “huge gratitude” to Russia and the two leaders appeared to warmly greet each other. The United States immediately condemned the meeting as an inappropriate “red carpet welcome” for a leader commonly believed to have used banned chemical weapons on civilians.
The official word out of the G20 summit appears to echo the core of the Times of Israel report: that Russian officials may finally be willing to drop Assad in order to secure stability in Syria. President Obama met Putin visibly along the sidelines of the summit, flanked by National Security Advisor Susan Rice. According to the White House, it was a productive 35-minute meeting.
“President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be preceded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire,” according to a White House official report following the meeting. An ABC News report quotes a White House official suggesting that the Russian government is more open to rescinding its support of Assad following the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. International officials believe a bomb placed on the plane, likely by the Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, was responsible for the plane’s collapse.
Statements from the Russian government following the G20 meeting appear more tepid. Daily Sabah, a Turkish outlet, reports that Kremlin officials made clear “differences remain” between the Russian and American lines of thinking on Syria.
Following the meeting with President Obama, however, Putin met with one of Assad’s most vocal opponents in the region: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Putin met with Erdogan for an hour to discuss Syria in private. No details have surfaced regarding what they discussed.
SANA, the Assad-controlled Syrian news agency, has reported on the meeting but published no details on what was said, merely that Syria and Ukraine came up as topics. The network’s most recent report on Russia claims Putin told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency that “Russia doesn’t have the right to discuss with President al-Assad the issue of stepping down because he is elected by the Syrian people, asserting that such a request wouldn’t be a moral act.”