“We’re still a long way off fully defeating terrorism,” the Russian President is ascribed as saying. “But as far as concerns our work… on Syrian territory, the military operation is coming to an end.”
Mr Assad’s visit to Russia was only revealed by a read-out published on the Kremlin’s website early on Tuesday morning. According to the statement, the Syrian leader was presented to Russian military leaders, whom he thanked for “defending the territorial integrity of [his] country”.
Mr Putin said the stage was now set for a switch to politics for the “long-term regulation of Syria”. This new political regulation should come under the aegis of the UN; Mr Assad was “ready to work with everyone wanting peace”, the Russian President claimed.
The two leaders discussed details of the Syrian People’s Congress, which has been re-scheduled for early December in Sochi. The conference, which will include the Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups, was due to take place on 18 November. Critics say it is a forum for Russia and Mr Assad to broker an agreement with the token opposition forces.
The surprise Sochi meeting had apparently come at the request of Turkey and Iran.
“We agreed with our colleagues that we would undertake extra consultations during our personal meeting,” Mr Putin said.
A meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been arranged for Wednesday in Sochi. It will happen shortly after a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump.
The Syrian war is proving unpopular at home. Unlike Ukraine, Syria remains for most Russians a far-away place. Half of Russians now believe the military operations in Syria should come to an end. According to a recent poll by the Levada Center, as many as 32 per cent of Russians believe it could become a “new Afghanistan”. That 10-year campaign exhausted the Soviet Union and was a major factor in the empire’s collapse.
News of mounting Russian casualties – reportedly 131 in the first nine months of the year – have added to the impetus for an end to the Russian operation.
Yet doubt remains whether either Russia or Mr Assad are capable of providing a political settlement.
The read-outs offer no mention of either the Kurds, with whom the Russians have an ambiguous but often positive relationship, or other opposition groups. There was nothing on plans to decentralise or provide autonomy. There was no mention of Mr Assad leaving his role once a new government was formed.
“We can’t know if such details were discussed, but I doubt it,” says security expert and former Kremlin advisor Vladimir Frolov. “This was an attempt to frame a settlement between Assad and the puppet opposition. Assad is not interested in a genuine political process, only in the opposition’s capitulation.”