Kremlin: Assad visit to ensure peace agreements
MOSCOW - The Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on an unannounced visit on Nov. 20 ahead of a summit in the same town between Russia, Iran and Turkey. This week's visit is the second time Assad ventured outside his war-ravaged nation since the civil war began, both times to Russia.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told reporters on Nov. 21 that Putin had spoken with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to "assure them that Russia will work with Syrian leadership to prepare the groundwork for possible understandings" that could reached in Sochi on Wednesday to "make sure" that agreements reached will be "viable."
Asked whether Putin and Assad have discussed the Syrian president's future in post-war Syria, Peskov said "possible options for political settlement have been discussed."
"Only the Syrian people can see Assad’s future role," Peskov also told the media.
In the meantime, Turkish sources have denied claims that Assad flew to Sochi using the Turkish airspace.
"We have no such information [that he used Turkish airspace]. He does not need to fly through our airspace. In the past, he had used Iranian airspace [to go to Russia]," sources said.
Russia is actively trying to build 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 favor.
Putin will meet the leaders of Iran and Turkey, two other powers with major stakes in the Syrian conflict, on Nov. 22 in the Russian resort of Sochi. Separately, Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar headed to Sochi on Nov. 21. Akar will meet Russia's Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov and their Iranian counterpart Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, said the Turkish General Staff in a message.
Meanwhile, Putin said he would follow up his talks with Assad with phone calls to U.S. President Donald Trump and to Middle Eastern leaders.
"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 broadcasted by Russian television.
"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 declared focus for Russia's peace efforts is a proposed Congress of Syrian Peoples, to include all the country's ethnic groups and the warring sides in the conflict.
Previous attempts to broker a peace deal have foundered because powers involved in the conflict have differing approaches. Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah militia have backed Assad, while the United States, Turkey, and the Gulf states have supported the Syrian leader's opponents.
Some people familiar with the Kremlin's thinking say that, to reach a peace deal, Russia would not insist on Assad staying in power -- as long as the institutions of the Syrian state remained intact.
Putin met Assad on Nov. 20 evening in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, although the Kremlin did not release information about Assad's visit until Nov. 21.
"I would like very much to discuss with you the main principles for organizing the political process, and the holding of a congress of the peoples of Syria, that is supported by you," Putin told Assad.
"I would like to hear from you your assessment of the state of affairs today, and the prospects for the developments of the situation, including your view of the political process, which, in our view, must ultimately be carried out under the aegis of the United Nations."
Putin and Assad last met on Oct. 20, 2015, a few weeks after Moscow launched its military operation in Syria, which has beaten back anti-Assad rebels and propped up struggling government forces.
For his meeting in Sochi, Assad stayed on Russian soil for a total of four hours, RIA news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. It was Assad's first publicly declared trip outside Syria since his 2015 visit to Moscow.
Wearing a dark suit and sitting across a small coffee table from Putin, Assad 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," he said through an interpreter.
"We don't want to look backwards. We welcome all those who truly want to see a political solution. We are ready to have a dialogue with them," said Assad.
Meanwhile, Russia's military chief on Nov. 21 said active operations in Syria were "coming to an end."
"The active phase of military operations in Syria is coming to an end. Despite the fact that there remains a raft of unresolved problems, that stage is coming to its logical conclusion," said Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in comments carried by agencies.
Syria’s government troops control nearly 98 percent of the country’s territory and “the terrorists’ remaining pockets of resistance are shrinking”, Putin said in his opening remarks at a meeting with Czech President Milos Zeman yesterday.
"You are quite right. It is true that government troops in Syria control more than 98 percent of the territory," Putin was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency TASS. "Pockets of resistance remain, but they are shrinking under the strikes of our Aerospace Force and the Syrian allies," Putin said.
At the beginning of the meeting Zeman mentioned Putin’s talks with Assad on Nov. 20.
"You’ve attained victory in Syria. He [Assad] is in control of practically the whole territory of Syria, except for some small areas," Zeman said in Russian. "Lastly, he is a democratically elected president."
Putin promised to review in detail the results of his talks with Assad.