MOSCOW–Moscow pulled yet another surprise out of its hat by flying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin Tuesday, reportedly using a Russian government plane. Yet Assad’s secret visit to the Kremlin followed by a new spat about Moscow’s diplomatic activity in the region.

Assad meets Putin at the Kremlin
Assad with Putin at the Kremlin

Following his meeting with Assad, Putin had conversations with Saudi King Salman and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As both regional leaders oppose Assad, they apparently remained unconvinced by Moscow’s overtures to Ankara and Riyadh.

Erdogan reportedly expressed concern over Russian airstrikes. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a transition was needed in Syria which guaranteed the departure of Assad.

During talks not been publicized in advance, Putin and Assad discussed the situation in Syria for three hours on Tuesday evening. Details of the negotiations were not disclosed. Putin’s spokesman commented that the political settlement in Syria (aka Assad’s removal) was premature as the terrorists in Syria remained undefeated. He didn’t confirm whether talks included details of Assad’s possible departure.

However, Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Moscow-based think-tank, argued that talks in Moscow might have included discussions on safety guarantees to Assad and his family members.

After talks with Assad, Putin also contacted leaders of Egypt and Jordan, two Mideast states potentially more sympathetic to the Russian initiatives. However, no specific agreements were announced after these conversations.

Nonetheless, Moscow appeared to have emerged as a clear winner in its efforts to push its agenda on Syria. Just a few weeks ago, the Kremlin’s pronouncements on Syria were largely ignored by the US and allies — including the Mideast nations. But Moscow, by its actions, has now literally forced its counterparts, at least in the region, to listen to Russian arguments on Syria.

Russian officials continued to insist that Moscow’s military intervention in Syria was necessary to restore peace and stability in the region. Russian airstrikes in Syria create conditions for a subsequent political settlement there, said Igor Morozov, member of the Federation Council, the Upper House of the Russian Parliament. Assad’s trip to Moscow sent a strong signal to the US and allies that Russia remained determined to re-establish order in the Middle East, he said.

However, foreign observers viewed the latest developments as a Kremlin attempt to prop up its Syrian ally, Assad. China’s official Xinhua new agency commented that Assad’s visit reflected the degree of Russian support conferred on Assad and his government.

However, Moscow’s latest round of diplomatic activity produced one unwanted result. Qatar reportedly hinted at possible military intervention against Assad in Syria, thus indicating the possibility of a direct confrontation between Russian air force and the regular forces of Assad’s foes in the region.

Russian officials remained slow to comment on Qatar’s veiled threats. In contrast, Russia’s official TASS new agency commented that Assad’s visit to Moscow showed that Russia has managed to stabilize the situation in Syria. The comment indicated that Moscow remains prone to wishful thinking as far as events in Syria are concerned.

Moscow’s direct military involvement in Syria is less than a month-old. But its intervention has been marked by dramatic uses of force. Russia began air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30. It also raised the stakes earlier this month by firing cruise missiles at rebel target from Russian Navy ships in the Caspian Sea.

Nonetheless, Russia’s former Soviet brethren have remained reluctant to commit themselves to Russian actions in Syria. During a series of top level meetings in Kazakhstan on Oct. 15-16 of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), leaders of the former Soviet republics voiced worries over a mounting Islamic State threat from Afghanistan. However, they still refrained from outright support of Russian actions in Syria.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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