What the Putin-Assad Meeting Tells Us About the Situation in Syria

Putin Assad Meeting Important
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to Moscow on Tuesday, in what marked the Syrian president's first foreign visit since 2011.

In a meeting that was made public only after it had taken place, the two men sat down with Russia's top diplomat Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu. Though the Kremlin's account of the day unveiled few surprisesPutin affirmed his support for Assad, and Assad expressed his gratitude to Putinthere were several key takeaways from the meeting.

Assad is more confident

The fact that the meeting took place at all is testament that Russia's airstrike campaign is working, and that Assad is more confident in his regime's strength than he has been for a long time. As Nikolay Kozhanov, Russia expert from international affairs think tank Chatham House explains, "One reason this meeting is important is that it is a good marker of how the situation in Syria is developing for Russia and also for the regime.

"We know that this is the first time Assad has left Syria since the start of the war or since his last trip to Tehran, and his visit now means he feels quite confident about what is happening in Syria," Kozhanov says. "This then means that Russia has managed to strengthen the regime and that it is not on the verge of collapse, as it seemed to be a couple of months ago."

Russia is Planning for Syria's Transition

Putin highlighted during the meeting that Russia would accompany their military backing of Assad with political assistance. Kozhanov believes that solidifying a diplomatic channel with Damascus means Russia could be preparing a new pitch to the U.S. for an international strategy to resolve the crisis.

"This visit is important for the Russians because it seems they want to revitalise the diplomatic track with Damascus and reach a diplomatic solution," he says. "Probably Russia is still interested in the future of the negotiation process in Syria with international actors. The Russian government might be preparing their own plan for the resolution of the conflict and it may be more inclusive of the opposition."

"However they realise that if they want to talk to the U.S. about Syria in the future, they first need to know how capable of change Assad is willing to be," he adds.

Putin Wants to Embarrass the West

According to Frederic C. Hof, former Middle East envoy for the U.S. state department and now with the Atlantic Council, the Russian government is attempting to embarrass the U.S. Putin is making a conscious effort to transform Moscow as the mediating ground for those most urgently interested in resolving the Syrian conflict, at the expense of the U.S.

"Putin made Syria the battleground where he thinks he can beat the U.S. and make the case that Russia is back as a great power. Assad is a key prop for Russia in this sense," Hof explains.

Russia has reached out to U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition, while simultaneously hosting Assad, thus hoping to strengthen its image in the region. The Kremlin also claimed it had notified Turkey of the meeting with Assad. Turkey is a U.S. and NATO ally, opposed to Assad's government, while Assad has publicly linked Turkey with the Islamic State group multiple times.

"It's not that the Turks or the Saudis necessarily agree with what Russia is doing. But that is not what is important to Putin right now," Hof says. "What is important for Putin is to make it so if they are looking for an address for something related to Syria, the address is not Washington D.C. it is Moscow. That is the point he is trying to drive home.

"If, in the end, Putin succeeds in forcing Obama to work with Assad to defeat ISIS. it would be a major humiliation for Washington," he adds.