Syrian President al-Assad makes surprise visit to Moscow

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The Kremlin unveiled on Wednesday that beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

This was the first official visit by the Syrian president outside Syria since the uprising against his regime started in 2011.

Al-Assad and Putin discussed the situation in war-torn Syria on Tuesday evening during talks that had not been made public in advance, the Kremlin spokesman said.

Putin was “informed in detail by his Syrian colleague about the situation in Syria and about perspective plans,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media.

The Russian president later talked by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, key backers of the Syrian opposition.

Russian state media reported that the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, the United States and Saudi Arabia would meet on Friday in Vienna.

During his meeting with Putin, al-Assad said that “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,” according to a Kremlin transcript.

Russia began a bombing campaign against militant groups in Syria last month to support al-Assad’s government, one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East.

“I want to express our tremendous gratitude to the Russian leadership and people for the help they are providing Syria,” al-Assad told Putin, according to the transcript posted on the Kremlin’s website.

The Syrian president said the military strikes were “essential” because “terrorism is a real obstacle on the road to reaching a political settlement.”

“We all know that any military action must be followed by political steps,” he told Putin.

Middle Eastern powers including Saudi Arabia and Turkey have called for al-Assad to resign as part of a political solution to the conflict, which began as protests against his rule evolved into riots amid a government crackdown.

Russia believes that instability in the Syrian government could allow extremist militant groups, including Islamic State, to take control by force.

Al-Assad expressed his hope to Putin that they would be able to “vanquish terrorism and continue working together to rebuild [Syria] economically and politically and ensure a peaceful life for everyone.”

Official Syrian state television said the visit was the result of an invitation by Putin.

Citing the presidency, Syrian radio reported that al-Assad had returned to the capital Damascus after a short visit to Moscow.

Syrian opposition figures criticized the visit.

“This visit, which happened in total secrecy, shows that al-Assad does not trust the people around him,” Ahmed Kamel, an opposition figure, told dpa.

“Putin wants to show the world, through this visit, that he has an upper hand on Syria and that he holds all the solutions concerning the Syrian crisis,” added Kamel, who belongs to the Syrian National Coalition.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay in Moscow to give his people relief.

“If he would only stay forever, the transition could start that way,” Davutoglu told journalists, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

The Turkish premier, whose government has long backed the Syrian opposition, said a political transition in Syria should ensure that al-Assad leaves office.

Putin on Wednesday talked to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by phone about al-Assad’s visit, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Turkey has influence over Syrian rebels in the bordering Idlib and Aleppo regions, where Russian warplanes have been bombing.

According to the United Nations, tens of thousands of people have fled Aleppo, which is divided between rebel-controlled areas and the government’s territory.

The Turkish news agency Dogan, citing sources in the presidency, reported that Erdogan told Putin about Turkey’s concern that Russian airstrikes around Aleppo could trigger a new migration wave.

Putin and Erdogan agreed to talk in detail in three weeks at the G20 summit in Turkey, the report said.

Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported that Putin had also called King Salman bin Abdulaziz to discuss regional developments.

A Saudi source, who declined to be named, said the Russian president had updated Salman, a key backer of Syrian rebels, on his talks with al-Assad.

The Saudi monarch in turn expressed his concern over the “obstinacy” of the Syrian regime and growing civilian casualties, the source said.

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