Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Moscow on Tuesday for his first official visit outside of the Middle East since last month’s earthquake. Mr. al-Assad is set to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, alongside a large Syrian ministerial delegation. The two leaders are expected to discuss co-operation in the political, trade, and humanitarian spheres, as well as prospects for an overall settlement of the situation in and around Syria.
Why is Assad in Moscow?
Experts believe Mr. al-Assad’s visit is linked to the need to co-operate on a joint strategy with Russia in light of new prospects for the rapprochement process between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “The political processes in the region are taking on a new dynamic, therefore the leaders of Russia and Syria, Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad, need to get on the same page,” said Nidal Sabi, an expert in inter-Arab relations.
Since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, Mr. al-Assad has been politically isolated in the region, with his country expelled from the Cairo-based Arab League. But since the earthquake, Arab leaders have made overtures to his government. Late last month, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry became the third Arab foreign minister to meet Mr. al-Assad since the February 6 earthquake killed more than 50,000 people in total, with about 6,000 dead in Syria.
Syria has been a staunch ally of Moscow since Russia launched a military campaign in the country in 2015 that helped to turn the tide of the civil war in favour of Mr. al-Assad. Russia supported Damascus through the extensive aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas. Moscow increased its presence in Syria after the US pulled out its forces in 2019.
Why is the timing of Assad’s trip important?
The visit coincides with the 12th anniversary of the uprising in Syria that began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011. The protests turned into an armed revolt after Mr. al-Assad used force to crush the opposition. It became a multi-sided conflict that has pulled in neighbors and world powers, as well as causing the largest displacement crisis since the Second World War.
In addition to the talks between Mr. al-Assad and Mr. Putin, Russia is also hosting Syrian and Turkish diplomats on Wednesday as part of its efforts to further thaw relations between the two countries. Turkey backs various rebel groups in Syria fighting Assad’s government, and relations were severed in 2012. However, Turkey has begun to recalibrate its position now that Assad has retaken most of the country with Russia’s help. In December, the Turkish and Syrian defence chiefs held a meeting in Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said that month that he would like to meet with Assad. Wednesday’s meeting between the Turkish and Syrian diplomats in Moscow was announced earlier, but Assad’s visit was not.
Image Credit: AFP