Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Moscow Tuesday evening on his first known trip outside the country since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. The visit underscores Russia’s increasingly visible role in the Middle Eastern conflict.
In the meeting, announced by both nations on Wednesday, the leaders discussed their joint military campaign and a future political transition from fighting in Syria.
Moscow has been a central ally of President Assad since the conflict began, using its veto powers four times on the UN Security Council to block resolutions on Syria. Last month that support escalated when President Vladimir Putin signed off on airstrikes against terrorists and anti-government insurgents, in support of Assad's military. The US and its allies, who have targeted Islamic State militants in the region through aerial attacks since last September, called Russia's new campaign counterproductive.
The US and Russia came to an agreement on Tuesday to avoid having their aircrafts crash over Syria, the BBC reports.
President Putin said in Tuesday’s meeting that the Syrian government “had achieved significantly positive results” in its fight against the many opposition groups targeting it, according to a statement released by the Kremlin Wednesday.
“If it were not for your actions and decisions, the terrorism that is spreading through the region now would have made even greater gains and spread to even wider territories,” Assad told President Putin.
Assad’s visit to Russia may signal a new level of confidence in the Kremlin’s ability to tip the scale of the ongoing conflict, which according to the United Nations has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced millions. Reuters reports:
Iran has also long been a strong Syrian government ally, and the fact that Assad chose to visit Moscow before Tehran is likely to be interpreted in some circles as a sign that Russia has now emerged as Assad's most important foreign friend.
According to The New York Times, many believe a principal reason Assad hasn’t traveled outside Syria in the past few years is that he could be overthrown in his absence.
But the new Russian support, including this high-profile meeting in Moscow, has clearly given him extra clout and a new political lease on life.
“He’ll return to Damascus temporarily reinforced by the Russian military and publicly expressed political support,” said a Western diplomat in the Middle East, who spoke on the condition of anonymity according to the rules of his ministry….
[Putin] and other Russian officials have also repeatedly said that they are not married to the idea of Mr. Assad as leader of Syria. But the meeting gave Mr. Assad a certain endorsement, and it also pointed to Russia as the crucial player in any future political transition in Syria.
Many in the West have criticized Russia for failing to focus its strikes against Syria's Islamic State jihadists, and instead striking more “moderate” rebels that are anti-Assad. But Russians argue that the distinction between the two groups is a false one – and that the Kremlin is focused on achieving stability in Syria, which Assad is best positioned to provide, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Russian sources insist that they are hitting IS hard. But more importantly, they say that they never made any promises to avoid attacking other rebel groups. They argue that while the US and its allies are fighting an ineffectual two-front war against IS and Assad, Russia's strategy has always been to bolster Assad's forces from above in a bid to turn the tide of the rebellion.
"Russia isn't playing this game of distinguishing between 'good' terrorists and 'bad' ones," says Yegeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow, and a strong backer of the Kremlin campaign. "For Russia, the only way to do this is to back Syria's existing central government, which is the force that has boots on the ground, and put an end to this rebellion."