Putin, Assad meet in Sochi to discuss Syria political process
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi for an unannounced meeting on Monday to discuss launching a political process to bring to an end to the over six-year civil war that has left 330,000 dead and millions homeless.
"On the 20th of November talks took place between the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and the president of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad, who was in Russia on a working visit," a statement issued by the Kremlin on Tuesday said.
Putin told Assad that military operations against terrorist forces in Syria were "nearing completion" and outlined his vision for a political settlement for the country, which he said he believes should come under the auspices of the United Nations.
"For a start I want to congratulate you with the results that Syria is achieving in the fight against terrorist groups... the Syrian nation is going through a very serious experience and nonetheless is approaching the final, inevitable defeat of the terrorists," Putin told Assad, the Kremlin website reported.
Assad, for his part, expressed gratitude to Russian forces who he said played an integral role in enabling the promotion of a political settlement in Syria.
"At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process," Assad said, speaking through an interpreter.
"We believe that the situation 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," Assad continued.
Putin said he would talk to US President Donald Trump by telephone following the meeting, in addition to Middle East leaders including Qatar and Jordan.
The leaders' meeting comes ahead of a trilateral summit between the presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Sochi on Wednesday for the first in a series of meetings aimed at re-booting the peace process in Syria, now that regime forces have an upper hand over rebels and the Islamic State group.
Putin will host Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Hassan Rouhani in the Black Sea resort of Sochi ahead of parallel UN-led talks in Geneva set for November 28.
The meeting -- the first such three-way summit between the trio -- comes as Ankara, Moscow and Tehran cooperate with increasing intensity on ending the war that has ravaged Syria.
The cooperation comes despite Turkey still officially being on an opposite side of the Syria conflict from Russia and Iran, which are key backers of Assad.
Turkey has backed the rebels seeking Assad's ouster but has muted its criticism of the Syrian regime.
The three countries have backed negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana that have brought together the representatives of the opposition and the regime seven times this year.
The talks have led the creation of four so-called "de-escalation zones" that have produced a drop in violence, but sporadic fighting and bombardment has continued.
Moscow is now seeking to steer the process, which has so far focused on military questions, in a political direction.
The Sochi summit will help to "relaunch direct negotiations between the Syrian government and the range of the opposition", said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"As a victory over Islamic State in Syria...grows closer, there are conditions for the relaunch of political negotiations," he said Friday.
- Assad's fate -
Moscow's military intervention in Syria from 2015 is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict.
Since then the Syrian army has reclaimed the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group and driven rebels out of their northern bastion Aleppo.
This week regime forces ousted the Islamic State group from its last urban stronghold in the country, Albu Kamal, which has changed hands several times.
Previous attempts to end the war have stalled over the question of the fate of Assad.
The last attempt by Moscow to bring together the regime and the opposition in Russia was coldly received by the rebels and no date has been fixed for a meeting which was originally set for November 18.
Different factions of the Syrian opposition will meet from Wednesday in Riyadh in talks hosted by Saudi Arabia.
The aim of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee is to reach consensus on a strategy for talks in Geneva, which will focus on a new constitution for Syria and fresh elections.
Russia and the United States this month issued a rare joint statement on Syria, saying there was "no military solution" to the conflict, but Moscow and Washington remain at loggerheads over the war.
(Staff with AFP)
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