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Assad Meets Putin in a Surprise Visit to Russia

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MOSCOW — President Bashar al-Assad of Syria paid a surprise visit to Russia on Thursday and was told by President Vladimir V. Putin that Russia expected “foreign armed forces” to pull out of Syria as a peace process began.

It was not immediately clear which foreign troops Mr. Putin referred to, as Russia, Iran, the United States and other nations have forces in the country. Mr. Putin said such a withdrawal would be part of a settlement of the country’s long civil war.

Both Iran and Russian forces are fighting on Mr. Assad’s side in Syria. If Mr. Putin was pointing to Iran’s military presence in Syria — which this month flared into an exchange of hostilities with Israel — his comment could suggest a Russian role in preventing Iran from becoming entrenched there.

Mr. Putin noted that the Syrian Army had won “significant victories and successes” in the war, according to the Tass news agency, and attention should turn to humanitarian aid and a political settlement.

“With the start of a political process in its more active phase, foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Mr. Putin said.

The news agency also paraphrased Mr. Putin’s message, though slightly differently, saying that, “in the course of the meeting Putin announced to Assad that he was counting on the withdrawal of foreign armed forces from the territory of Syria.”

By late Thursday, the Kremlin had not released a full transcript that included mention of the foreign troops.

Russia is the only major power with significant relations with the main regional antagonists: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Israel. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, met with Mr. Putin in Moscow on May 9.

Mr. Assad met with Mr. Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Though the meeting occurred during the day, according to a video recording, Russian state television broadcast news of the visit only late Thursday, for reasons that were unclear.

Mr. Assad thanked Russia for its military aid, and he described efforts at a political settlement that included amending Syria’s Constitution.

Mr. Putin congratulated the Syrian leader for clearing the area around the capital, Damascus, of what he called terrorist forces, but he did not mention Western allegations that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons to do so. The Syrian Army, he said, managed to “push them back and practically end their operations near the Syrian capital.”


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