Putin, Assad discuss reconstruction of Syria, regional issues

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

He welcomed Assad at the start of the rally, which took place on the anniversary of Syria’s 12-year uprising turned civil war, and stressed the Russian military’s “decisive contribution” to stabilizing the country.

Russia has been running a military campaign in Syria since September 2015 and is working with Iran to enable the Assad government to fight armed opposition groups and regain control of most of the country. While Russia is now concentrating most of its military assets in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military foothold in Syria, keeping fighter jets and troops on its bases there.

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

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

The two rounds of talks between the leaders, the first with 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 were discussing “joint cooperation in various forms and developments in the regional and international arenas”. It noted that Assad “renewed Syria’s position in support of Russia’s right to defend its national security”.

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

Some Arab countries that had called for Assad’s fall in the past have sent aid after the catastrophic February 6 earthquake which hit Turkey and Syria, leaving more than 50,000 dead, including more than 6,000 in Syria.

International sympathy after the earthquake seemed to have accelerated regional rapprochement, some called for dialogue with Syria and for the country to be reduced to the 22-member Arab League more than a decade after membership was suspended due to the crackdown in the early months of the insurgency that turned to war.

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

On Wednesday, Assad also thanked Putin for sending rescue teams and enlisting his army in Syria to carry out rescue efforts and help deal with the earthquake’s aftermath.

Before the earthquakeRussia brokered talks between Turkey and Syria.

Turkey has backed armed opposition groups in Syria that attempted to overthrow Assad’s government during the civil war that 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 can normalize its relations with Ankara.

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

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked ahead of Putin’s talks with Assad if they could play a role in restoring Syria’s ties with Turkey, responded that “the issue of Syrian-Turkish relations will undoubtedly be part of of the meeting agenda.”

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

The Assad government has portrayed the SDF as a secessionist force that steals 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”. It said Assad stressed that Syria supports dialogue “if it leads to the achievement of the interests of the Syrian people and the unity and integrity of the Syrian territory and leads to clear results, the first of which is the continuation of the fight against terrorism and the exit of illegal foreign troops present on its territory.” The statement went no further.

Syrian, Turkish and Russian deputy foreign ministers and a senior Iranian envoy were scheduled to hold talks in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss “counter-terrorism efforts” in Syria, although Syrian deputy foreign minister Ayman Sousan has been told by pro-government media outlets were quoted as saying that the meeting “is still under discussion.”


Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut.

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