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Vladimir Putin has held talks with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Sochi as Russia steps up its efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
After two years shoring up Mr Assad’s military dominance in Syria, the Russian president is eager to secure a political process that other world powers deem acceptable enough to fund reconstruction, allowing him to halt Russia’s military intervention.
Mr Assad’s surprise visit to the Black Sea resort on Monday came before Mr Putin hosts Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for negotiations on Syria on Wednesday.
In the presence of Russia’s defence minister and the general staff of the country’s armed forces, Mr Assad thanked the Russian military for “saving our country” as he and Mr Putin stressed that the Russian operation was nearing its end.
Prompted by Mr Putin, the Syrian president declared that he was willing to negotiate with any Syrian group ready for dialogue. “We don’t want to look back. We welcome all who are really interested in a political solution. We are ready to conduct dialogue with them,” Mr Assad said.
However, he added that he counted on Russia’s support in ensuring that external players would not “meddle” but support the process that he said needed to be conducted by Syrians themselves.
The remarks pointed to the continued opposition among western and many regional governments to a political process that might see Mr Assad remain in power. Many western officials are also wary of supporting Russia’s diplomatic efforts because they argue the moves are undermining the legitimacy of an already foundering UN-led peace process in Geneva.
Russia’s push for political momentum comes as the war against Isis nears its final days. Having once dominated swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, the jihadi group’s territorial grip has been decimated by two rival international alliances.
A US-led international coalition has backed the national military in Iraq and a Kurdish-led militia in north-eastern Syria. Russia and Iran, meanwhile, have supported Mr Assad’s fight to wrest back territory — both from Isis and an armed opposition movement that once challenged his rule. This week, Syrian government forces recaptured the last major Isis-held town, Al-Bukamal, which sits on the Iraqi border.
Iran, which is the other main foreign backer of the Assad regime, on Tuesday declared the end of Isis. “Today . . . this evil has been uprooted . . . even though its affects will continue,” Mr Rouhani said.
The Syrian conflict began in 2011 as an uprising against Mr Assad’s rule but spiralled into an internationalised, multi-sided civil war in which jihadi groups and the Kurds began to carve out their own enclaves. Mr Assad and US-backed Kurds have emerged as the most powerful players, with the Syrian government holding more than 40 per cent of territory and the Kurds holding about a quarter. The rest of Syrian territory is in scattered pockets held by jihadi groups or remaining opposition forces.
Moscow initially announced it would be holding a “Syrian People’s Congress” in Sochi on November 18 at which representatives from all Syria’s political camps were to discuss a draft constitution drawn up with Russian backing. But the event was delayed at the last minute after important opposition groups refused to participate and governments in the west and the region signalled that they would not fund reconstruction in a Syria still ruled by Mr Assad.
The conference initiative and this week’s trilateral summit have been seen as attempts by Moscow to encourage the west to do more to help the political process move forward.
“They are exasperated at the lack of progress at the UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva, and they are telling us: Do it, or we will do it,” said a European diplomat in Moscow. “The new round in Geneva due from November 28 is partly a result of that pressure.”
Mr Assad said the Syrian People’s Congress in Sochi was still planned for the near future.
On Monday, Mr Putin repeatedly said any final political solution needed UN backing. The Russian president stressed that in addition to Iran and Turkey, Russia was also working with Iraq, the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and was “in constant contact with these partners”.
Mr Putin is due to speak to US president Donald Trump on Tuesday, and later with other regional leaders.