Moscow: Russian President Vladimir Putin held a surprise meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, kicking off a diplomatic drive this week to outline the terms of an end to the Middle Eastern country’s bloody civil war. Putin will speak by phone with US President Donald Trump later Tuesday, the Kremlin said.

Putin has taken a dominant role in the efforts to resolve the conflict after a two-year Russian military campaign helped Assad fight off opponents, including some backed by the US With Islamic State nearly defeated in Syria, the Kremlin is moving on to bring together the regional and global powers in the fight to revive long-stalled efforts to reach a settlement.

Putin meets the leaders of Iran and Turkey—which have joined Russia to back steps toward ending the war this year—in Sochi on Wednesday to discuss the settlement. The Kremlin said he held talks with the Emir of Qatar on Monday.

“The most important question of course is what will happen after the defeat of the terrorists in terms of a peaceful political settlement," Putin told Assad during their meeting in Sochi, noting the Syrian leader’s support for a Russia-backed peace plan, according to a Kremlin transcript.

‘Attained victory’

Expressing thanks for Russia’s role, Assad said, “especially since we’ve attained victory over the terrorists, we want the political process to progress." He added, “We’re counting on Russia’s support to ensure the non-intervention of outside players in the political process, so that their role is to support the efforts of the Syrians themselves."

The Assad visit, which wasn’t publicly announced until the following day, echoed a similar trip to Russia the Syrian leader made as Putin launched his air and ground campaign, which turned the tide in the war in favour of the embattled president, whom western leaders have long sought to see removed.

On Monday, Putin presented Assad to the military commanders who led the effort. “I want to introduce to you the people who played a decisive role in saving Syria," Putin said.

“Today, on behalf of the Syrian people, I extend my gratitude to you for what you did. We will never forget it," Assad said.

Russia has also been actively working with Saudi Arabia and other backers of Assad’s opponents to restart the peace process. On Wednesday, the Saudi government will host a meeting in Riyadh of opposition groups that aims to combine them into a single delegation for peace talks in Geneva. The unified bloc, including factions less hostile to Assad, would be a “tame" counterparty for the Syrian regime at the negotiating table, said Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria who’s now a fellow at Yale University and the Middle East Institute in Washington. Bloomberg

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