Putin, Assad discuss rebuilding Syria, regional issues

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has hosted Syrian leader Bashar Assad for talks in the Kremlin that focused on rebuilding Syria after a devastating civil war and efforts to stabilize the region

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar Assad in the Kremlin on Wednesday for talks that focused on rebuilding Syria after a devastating civil war and efforts to stabilize the region.

Welcoming Assad at the start of the meeting, which took place on the anniversary of Syria’s 12-year uprising-turned-civil war, Putin emphasized the Russian military's “decisive contribution” to stabilizing the country.

Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, teaming up with Iran to allow Assad’s government to fight armed opposition groups and reclaim control over most of the country. While Russia now concentrates the bulk of its military resources in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military foothold in Syria and kept warplanes and troops at its bases there.

Assad thanked Putin for backing Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity, noting that the Kremlin's support has remained strong despite the fighting in Ukraine.

“Even though Russia now is also conducting the special operation, its position has remained unchanged," Assad said, using the Kremlin's “special military operation” term for the Russian action in Ukraine and voicing support for Moscow's effort.

The two rounds of talks between the leaders, the first one involving senior officials from both countries and then a one-on-one encounter over lunch, lasted for more than three hours. The Russian and Syrian defense ministers also met separately to discuss military cooperation.

Assad's office said on Twitter that the two leaders discussed “joint cooperation in various forms and developments on the regional and international arenas.” It noted that Assad “renewed Syria’s position in support of Russia’s right to defend its national security.”

Moscow has provided robust political support to Assad at the United Nations and actively mediated to help repair his government's ties with regional powers.

Some Arab countries that had called in the past for the downfall of Assad have sent aid following the catastrophic Feb. 6 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria killing more than 50,000 including over 6,000 in Syria.

International sympathy following the quake appeared to have sped up the regional rapprochement, with some calling for dialogue with Syria and for bringing the country back to the 22-member Arab League more than a decade after its membership was suspended over the crackdown in the early months of the uprising that turned into war.

As part of the ongoing rapprochement, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan recently made their first visit to Damascus since the conflict began in March 2011 and met with Assad.

On Wednesday, Assad also thanked Putin for sending rescue teams and engaging its military based in Syria to conduct salvage efforts and help deal with the quake's aftermath.

Prior to the earthquake, Russia had been mediating talks between Turkey and Syria.

Turkey has backed armed opposition groups in Syria that have sought to overturn Assad's government during the civil war, which has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s prewar population. Syria has demanded that Turkey withdraws from an enclave it controls in northwestern Syria in order for Damascus to normalize its relations with Ankara.

In December, Moscow hosted surprise talks between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers. Arab media reported that one of the main topics that Assad will discuss with Putin during their meeting on Wednesday is reconciliation between Syria and Turkey.

Asked before Putin’s talks with Assad if they could play a role in restoring Syria’s ties with Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that “the issue of the Syrian-Turkish relations will undoubtedly be part of the talks’ agenda.”

Even though Turkey has backed Syrian opposition fighters in the north, Ankara and Damascus share dismay over the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s northeast. Turkey-backed opposition fighters have clashed with the SDF in the past, accusing them of being an arm of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK has for decades waged an insurgency within Turkey against the government in Ankara.

Assad’s government has cast the SDF as a secessionist force that has been pilfering the country’s wealth while controlling Syria’s major oil fields.

Assad’s office said in a statement after the talks that Putin and Assad talked about “regional initiatives supported by Moscow.” It said Assad emphasized that Syria supports dialogue “if it leads to achieving the interests of the Syrian people and the unity and integrity of the Syrian territory and leads to clear results, the first of which is the continuation of the fight against terrorism and the exit of illegal foreign forces present on its territory.” The statement didn't elaborate.

The Syrian, Turkish and Russian deputy foreign ministers and a senior Iranian envoy were expected to hold talks Wednesday and Thursday in Moscow to discuss “counterterrorism efforts” in Syria, although Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan was quoted by pro-government media as saying that the meeting “is still under discussion.”

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Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut.

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