Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in May 2018. Photo: Sputnik via Reuters/ Mikhail Klimentyev

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in Sochi, Russia for a surprise get together with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday, amid a fast-changing strategic landscape in the Middle East.

During the meeting, Putin notably stressed that in light of “the start of a more active phase of the political process […] foreign armed forces will be withdrawing from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The comments, as translated by the Kremlin’s website, were later clarified on Friday.

Putin’s statement to al-Assad referred to foreign forces including Iran and Hezbollah, Russia’s envoy in Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, was paraphrased by the Associated Press as saying. The comments, he said, were also in reference to US and Turkish forces.

Al-Assad’s visit to Russia came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s significantly more high-profile trip to Moscow last week, which coincided with a massive Israeli air campaign targeting Iranian assets in Syria.

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