Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid an unannounced visit to Vladimir Putin on Thursday evening at the Russian president's summer home in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi where the two leaders discussed the process for winding down the war in Syria, and notably the reduction of foreign troop presence in the country.
This marks the third such known meeting inside Russia between Assad and President Putin since 2015, and the first since two major instances of external airstrikes on the Syrian government dramatically escalated the prospect for broader war. The first was the April 13th US-led coalition attack involving over one hundred missiles on sites in and around Damascus; and the second was the May 10 Israeli attack on dozens of targets inside Syria in what was the biggest military escalation between the two countries in decades.
No doubt the two leaders, both long branded international pariahs by the West, had a lot to discuss after the uptick of external military action in Syria, but likely looming larger was the Iran and Israel question, and Israel's continued threats of attack should its "Iranian red line" go unenforced.
Recall that a mere week ago Netanyahu concluded a 10-hour visit with Putin in Moscow just as Israeli jets were in the air beginning strikes against Syrian bases said to house Iranian troops.
And crucially, Syria's state-run SANA has confirmed that Putin told Assad during the meeting that "foreign armed forces" would leave Syria.
The official readout of the meeting quotes President Putin as saying, “We affirm that with the achievement of the big victories and the remarkable successes by the Syrian Arab army in the fight against terrorism and with the activation of the political process, it is necessary for all foreign forces to withdraw from the Syrian Arab Republic territories.”
This is a reference to the still ongoing but thorny Astana, Kazakhstan centered talks involving Russia, Turkey, and Iran which has been by and large rejected by the vast majority of anti-Assad fighters, especially due to Iran's contentious role as a main guarantor of the deal.
For this reason most media outlets commenting on Putin's reference to "foreign forces" interpret this as a jab at key Syrian ally Iran; however, a number of Middle East based journalists and analysts point to US occupying forces in Syria's northeast, as well as Turkey's military and armed proxy groups in the formerly Syrian Kurdish Afrin canton near Aleppo, and the tens of thousands for foreign jihadists that continue to fight in Syria — many of them state sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other external actors.
The Washington Post and CNN, for example, focused on Iran and Hezbollah as key foreign forces that have "helped to prop up the embattled President [Assad]." The Post's Liz Sly said, "In the context of current debates for a [political] settlement, that's code for Iran. No indication whether Assad agreed."
Putin to Assad in Sochi tonight: "Foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic." In the context of current debates for a settlement, that's code for Iran. No indication whether Assad agreed. The Kremlin readout: https://t.co/7n0lhQkYJV— Liz Sly (@LizSly) May 17, 2018
However former Sunday Times journalist Hala Jaber countered that Putin did not refer to Iran or other Syrian allied forces: "Iran‘s presence is not viewed in the same league as that of the U.S. and as such is not negotiable nor will be used by Syria as an exchange commodity... U.S. presence is viewed as totally illegal...[there's] no comparison" she wrote.
Notably, Assad's statement while meeting with Putin named “illegal foreign forces” compared with Putin's mention of "foreign forces." Jaber further argued that "the reference by both Putin and Assad relates to both Turkish and U.S. forces and not Iran, which has a defense agreement with Syria... its current presence is not part of any such deals to be made."
Incorrect.. the reference by both Putin & Assad, relates to both Turkish & U.S forces and not Iran, which has a defence agreement with Syria.. it’s current presence is not part of any such deals to be made.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) May 18, 2018
As we noted in the aftermath of Israel's latest massive attack on multiple locations inside Syria, Russia has appeared content to stay on the sidelines while Syria and Israel lobbed missiles at each other; however, Russia is carefully balancing its interests in Syria, eager to avoid an uncontrolled escalation leading to a direct great power confrontation.
Though a number of Western analysts have interpreted Russia's relative silence on the latest Israeli strikes (as well as apparent U-turn on prior indications that it would supply Syria with with S-300 missiles) as signs of a weakening Moscow-Damascus alliance, it is more likely that Russia is pleased with Syria's current air defense systems, and sees the battlefield as increasingly stabilizing in spite of limited Israeli incursions, hence Putin's desire of “stepping up the political process” as he confirmed Thursday.
As we reported, Syria's current missile defense seems to have performed well. SANA indicated that the army’s air defenses had “shot down dozens of Israeli missiles, preventing most of them from reaching their targets,” however, some of the rockets managed to hit radars and an ammunition depot. But beyond this, the multiple videos purporting to show direct intercepts by Syrian defenses make for a convincing case that Syria still possesses robust deterrent capabilities.
Yet in typical fashion the mainstream media can only interpret all recent events as signs of Syrian-Russian weakness and increased internal tensions. Time will tell.