Putin visits Assad in Syria in wake of Suleimani killing

Gen Qassem Suleimani led Iranian forces supporting Syrian president during civil war

Russian president Vladimir Putin (right), with  Syrian president Bashar Assad  in Damascus, Syria,  on Tuesday. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP

Russian president Vladimir Putin (right), with Syrian president Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP

 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has travelled to Syria to meet President Bashar Assad and other officials.

The visit to Syria, a key ally of Iran, came amid soaring tensions in the Middle East between Iran and the US, following the US killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani by drone strike in Iraq.

Gen Suleimani had led forces supporting Mr Assad in Syria’s civil war. Iran has vowed revenge for the killing, and with 600 US troops deployed in Syria, the country is a potential site of conflict with Iran.

The timing of Mr Putin’s visit is conspicuous. Gen Suleimani had led Iran’s armed support for Mr Assad as armed rebels neared the capital, Damascus, and he helped seize key cities, preventing the collapse of the state. Thousands of Iranian-backed fighters remain scattered across Syria.

Mr Putin and Mr Assad met on Tuesday at a Russian command post in Damascus, and were presented with military reports on the situation in different parts of Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

In his conversation with Mr Assad, Mr Putin said a lot had been done towards restoring Syria’s statehood and territorial integrity.

“The situation didn’t just change – in fact, we’re witnessing the restoration of Syria’s statehood, Syria as a state, the country’s territorial integrity,” Mr Putin said in video of the meeting released by Syria’s state news agency, Sana.

Situation ‘escalating’

At the same time, Mr Putin noted that the situation in the Middle East “is, unfortunately, escalating”.

Russia joined the Syrian civil war in 2015. The Syrian government has largely won the nearly nine-year civil war militarily, and has retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters.

In recent weeks, Syrian troops supported by Russian planes have been pushing into the country’s last rebel stronghold in northwestern Idlib province.

During his time in Damascus, Mr Putin visited the Syrian capital’s landmark Umayyad Mosque in the walled Old City, where he viewed the tomb of John the Baptist, who is sacred to both Christians and Muslims.

Mr Putin’s visit coincided with Russian Orthodox Christmas, and he congratulated his troops on the holiday, according to a statement from Mr Assad’s office. Photos showed the two leaders visiting an orthodox cathedral in Damascus.

The last time Mr Putin visited Syria was in 2017 when he announced a scaling-back of the Russian military presence there. Mr Assad previously visited Russia and met Mr Putin in May 2018, November 2017 and October 2015.

More than 400,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war and 11 million have been displaced from their homes, including five million who are refugees outside the country. – Associated Press