Assad Meets Putin In First Foreign Visit Since The Start of Syrian War

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on Tuesday night and met with his closest political ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pair discussed Russia's air strikes in Syria and extending political cooperation between Moscow and Damascus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state news agency Itar-Tass.

Footage from the meeting, which is Assad's first foreign visit since the breakout of civil war in 2011, was broadcast on Russian state TV shortly after the event took place. Russian Foreign and Defence Ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoygu, also attended the meeting.

The Russian President, encouraged by "significant positive results" in joint Russian-Syrian efforts in fighting militant groups, said that a "long-term solution can be achieved through a political process with the participation of all political, ethnic and religious groups," Tass reported.

Putin then added that the Russian government is now "ready to make a contribution not only to fighting against terrorism, but also in the political process." He invited "other world powers and countries of the region that are interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict" to join the initiative.

Similar calls by the Kremlin to Western governments and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia or even the Syrian opposition have previously been rejected due to Russia's insistence that the Assad government also be part of the joint effort.

Putin once again expressed his concern at the number of Russians and citizens from former Soviet countries who have joined ISIS and other groups, estimating them to now be at least 4,000.

Assad, meanwhile, expressed his "profound gratitude" to the Russian government for helping Syria.

"Political steps taken by the Russian Federation since the start of the crisis prevented the situation in Syria from developing into a tragic scenario," Assad said. Gesturing toward Putin, he added: "If it were not for your actions and decisions the terror which has spread across the region would have spread to an even larger area and it would still be continuing to spread further."

Referring to Russia's start of air operations in Syria last month at the behest of Damascus, Assad continued: "These [political] steps you confirmed by the fact that you joined the fight in a united front against terrorism."

Answering reporters' questions before his visit, Assad took issue with the EU's stance on the large influx of refugees on the continent. "If Europeans are so concerned with the fate of the refugees, they should stop backing terrorists," he said. "This is our opinion on the given matter. This is the crux of the question."

Assad also took a swipe at neighbouring Turkey, accusing Ankara of backing extremist groups in Syria. "We all know that Turkey, which has close relations with the West, supplies Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS with weapons, money and volunteers," Assad said.