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Assad summoned to Moscow

Assad’s visit is an important marker that Moscow’s intervention in Syria is about to enter a new stage

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

On Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The visit, anticipated for months, occurred three weeks into the Kremlin’s aerial and sea campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups.

It marks Assad’s first foreign visit since the 2011 uprising in Syria began. His last visit to Moscow was that same year. That Assad felt comfortable enough to travel outside Syria direct to Russia is notable. With Russian and Iranian support, Assad felt that his core allies in Damascus - his immediate family and the intelligence services - are in control.
However, Assad literally snuck out of Syria with no reports of his trip, and took a Russian jet. Also, it should be noted that his wife Asma was not in Damascus at the time. She was in Jableh, a few miles away from the Russian air base in Latakia. Perhaps the ruling couple fear they may not be allowed to return.

Assad’s visit is an important marker that Moscow’s intervention in Syria is about to enter a new stage.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Russia’s position regarding Assad and Syria’s future was evident at the meeting. Putin repeated what he has said all along, that there would be an eventual need for a political settlement to the conflict. That Russia has come to save Syria from itself is salient: Putin has said when “healthy forces” are ready to negotiate, there will be an election with a transition away from Assad to another leader.

War on terror

“The attempts by international terrorists to bring whole swathes of territory in the Middle East under their control and destabilize the situation in the region raise legitimate concerns in many countries around the world,” said Putin.
“This is a matter of concern for Russia too, given that sadly, people from the former Soviet Union, around 4,000 people at least, have taken up arms and are fighting on Syrian territory against the government forces. Of course, we cannot let these people gain combat experience and go through ideological indoctrination and then return to Russia.”

In other words, Russia will stay in Syria until the latter stops being an incubator or launch pad for global extremism. Western estimates on the fight against ISIS and other extremists are in the two-decade range. Moscow has not released a timetable yet. Perhaps that is a smart move.

At their meeting, Assad expressed appreciation for Putin’s support, and affirmed the desire for an eventual political settlement: “The whole people wants to take part in deciding the fate of the state, not just the ruling group.” Mention of the ruling group is an important indicator that Assad is kissing the ring on Putin’s finger for saving his family and close colleagues.

Converging plans

Assad’s surprise visit is all about timing. In the past few days, Turkey said Assad could keep “the powers of the presidency for six months before retirement.” Such talk plays into Russia’s role as negotiator for Syria’s political future, and fits perfectly with the Kremlin’s plans.

Moreover, Assad’s visit fits into U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans for talks on Syria that must involve a transition plan. It is important to remember that Kerry stands outside conventional wisdom in Washington.

After Assad’s visit, Moscow moved quickly to announce its next steps. The defense minister announced more measures for the Russian presence in Syria, including “to create conditions for the settlement of the conflict.”

With the establishment of a base in Latakia, there may be further on-the-ground requirements that Russia will direct the Syrian army and its allies to fight. Significantly, Assad is said to have requested more military involvement from Moscow. Whether that request involves special forces, possibly from Chechnya, remains to be seen.

On Thursday, a Russian parliamentary delegation headed by Dimitrii Sablin will meet with Assad to assess the situation in Damascus, and how to launch a transition process. In May, Sablin headed a delegation to Syria that met officials and representatives of religious communities.

Assad’s visit is an important marker that Moscow’s intervention in Syria is about to enter a new stage. The Russian general staff have said sorties will increase dramatically. There are also indicators that the battle for Aleppo will commence soon, with the build-up of thousands of Iranian-linked forces with the Syrian military. The pieces for the transition are coming together on the Kremlin’s orders.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.