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Putin meets with Syria's Assad with the Middle East on edge

By ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN | The Washington Post | Published: January 7, 2020

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Syria on Tuesday with the country's leader Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin spokesman said, with the region nervously awaiting the next possible step in the U.S.-Iran showdown.

Putin's trip — which was not announced in advance — marked his first visit since 2017 to Syria, Moscow's main Middle East ally. Syria also has close ties to Iran.

The meeting comes amid a crisis atmosphere in the region after a U.S. airstrike last week killed Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran has vowed to strike back.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not specify that Iran come up in Putin and Assad's conversation. But he noted the Russian forces in Syria, which were dispatched in 2015 to give Assad critical help to turn the tide in the country's civil war.

"The president of Syria expressed his gratitude to Russia and the Russian military for assistance with combating terrorism and rebuilding peaceful life in Syria," Peskov said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Putin headed through the streets of Damascus on the way to visit Russian troops based there, at which point Assad met with Putin.

"The two heads of state heard military reports on the state of affairs in various parts of the country," Peskov said. "During his conversation with Assad, Putin noted that he could now confidently state that a huge distance had been overcome toward restoring Syria's statehood and territorial integrity."

Putin is also due to visit several more facilities while in Syria during the days when Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas.

Russia took an active role mediating Turkey's military offensive into northern Syria last fall, reaching an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a full cease-fire.

Turkey and Russia now jointly control a wide swath of territory just south of Turkey's border, formerly held by Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with the United States. Most important for Putin was that it strengthened Assad by allowing him to regain control over more Syrian territory.

While the timing of this visit could be related to unrest in Iran, it could also be a show of support for Assad before Putin is scheduled to meet with Erdogan in Istanbul on Wednesday.

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