Putin, Assad agree on changing focus to finding political solutions in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for talks at which the two men agreed that the focus in the Syrian conflict was now switching from military operations to the search for a political solution.

Russian leader has several meetings, phone calls this week with world leaders who want to end Syria's war

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia on Monday. The leaders were discussing changing the focus in Syria from military to political solutions. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad late on Monday for three hours of talks to lay the groundwork for a new push by Moscow to end Syria's conflict now that the territorial caliphate of the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is overrun.

Russia is actively trying to broker an international consensus around a peace deal for Syria, over two years after Moscow began a military intervention that turned the tide of the conflict in Assad's favour.

Previous attempts to end Syria's six years of war have foundered because of bitter disagreements among players in the conflict, both inside and outside Syria, especially whether Assad himself should stay in power.

"We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up," Putin told Assad, in comments broadcast by Russian television.

Putin notes Assad's 'readiness to work'

"Now the most important thing, of course, is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution [to the conflict]," Putin said.

The meeting, according to the Kremlin, happened on Monday evening in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Putin has a residence. However, the Kremlin did not release information about Assad's visit until Tuesday.

For Monday's meeting in Sochi, Assad stayed on Russian soil for a total of four hours, RIA news agency quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Assad, wearing a dark suit and sitting across a small coffee table from Putin, told the Russian leader: "At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process."

"And we believe that the situation we now have on the ground and in the political sense permits us to expect progress in the political process. We count on the support of Russia to ensure the non-interference of outside players in the political process," said Assad, speaking through an interpreter.

Putin to meet with Erdogan, Rouhani

Underscoring the importance of the Russian military in propping up Assad's rule, Putin presented the Syrian leader to a gathering of his top military command, who were also assembled at his Sochi residence. 

"On behalf of the entire Syrian people, I express my gratitude for what you have done," Assad told the roomful of Russian military officers. "We will not forget it."

After the talks in Russia — Assad's first publicly declared travel outside Syria since a trip to Moscow in October 2015 — a Kremlin spokesman declined to say if Assad's own future had come up in the discussions, saying only that was up to the Syrian people.

Assad's opponents, and Western governments, have accused Russia of killing significant numbers of Syrian civilians with its airstrikes, allegations Moscow denies. 

Putin and Assad last met on Oct. 20, 2015 in Moscow, a few weeks after Russia launched a military operation in Syria that turned the tide of the conflict in Assad's favour.

Turkey, Iran backed opposing sides

Later in the day, Putin spoke with Donald Trump regarding his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. and Russia both confirmed.

Putin stressed the importance of finding a political solution to the civil war, Russia said.

"The message was sent of the necessity to keep the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria and to reach a political settlement based on principals to be worked out in a full-scale negotiation process in Syria," the Kremlin said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — whose countries back opposing sides in the Syria conflict — will travel to Russia for a three-way meeting with Putin aimed at advancing the Syrian peace process.

Previous attempts to end Syria's six years of war have foundered because of bitter disagreements among players in the conflict, both inside and outside Syria, especially whether Assad himself should stay in power.

In a sign that international attempts may be underway to bridge the differences between rival sides in the conflict, leading Syrian opposition figures, including former prime minister Riyad Hijab, resigned. Hijab headed the opposition High Negotiations Committee, formed with Saudi backing, and had insisted on Assad's removal from power at the start of a political transition.

While Russia is not wedded to Assad, Iran is committed to him. Iranian forces and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia have played a big role in the fighting on the ground, supporting Assad's forces.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah thanked and praised Shia militias including Afghans and Iraqis for their role in the Syria war in a speech on Monday night.