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Emboldened Syrian President Visits Moscow

Michael Johnson

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad made an unannounced trip to Moscow on Tuesday, visiting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders discussed the Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria amid their alliance’s growing momentum against rebel forces and ISIS.

The Presidents held three rounds of talks during Asad’s short tour of the Kremlin, including an “intimate” discussion on a common vision and values, according analysts on Syrian state TV. While a spokesperson for President Putin declined to comment on any specific outcome of the meeting, the two leaders reiterated their position that the Russian military operations were legal, and aimed solely at terrorists elements and maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.

President Asad will likely benefit more from the meeting than Russia’s leader, exhibiting newfound confidence and added legitimacy in his first public trip abroad since the civil war started in 2011. The visit shows Asad’s importance, but also suggests that Moscow may have become a more important patron than the Ayatollahs in Tehran. The Kremlin indicated it would back the Syrian president’s participation in any political discussion of a long-off political transition, strengthening his diplomatic hand over rebels and the West calling for such an agreement to include his removal from power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in Moscow. (Photo: AP)

Back in Syria, Moscow has deployed approximately 50 jets and helicopters in Latakia, Syria protected by a contingent of Russian marines. The force has flown over 700 missions against 690 targets this month. Russian military trainers are also advising the Syrian military on troop deployments, helping the regime to shift the inertia of battle in their favor over recent weeks. With assistance from Russian air cover, Syrian ground forces have advanced in areas not held by the government in over a year. Troops have recaptured communities southwest of Aleppo, while the surge of fighting prompted an estimated 35,000 people to flee the area, according to aid agencies.

While Russia’s immediate goal is to win militarily in Syria and prop up a regional ally, leaders in Moscow are also playing the long game. Their intervention has enhanced their regional dominance to the detriment of U.S. interests, as both powers vie for influence. In line with such goals, Putin has meet with other Middle East leaders in the past few months including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. All three have been traditional allies for the U.S., however, they are showing an increased willingness to engage with a regime that is sanctioned by the Washington amid America’s perceived weakness in the region.