On 17 May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad arrived in the Russian city of Sochi for an unannounced meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was not met with the usual presidential protocols, and the Syrian official media did not report the visit until he had returned to Damascus.
This is not the first time that Al-Assad has been “summoned” to a meeting with Putin. On 11 December, he met Putin at the Hameim military base in Latakia in Syria, used by Russian forces, where he was obviously patronised by the Russian president.
An officer prevented Al-Assad from approaching Putin when he was reviewing Russian soldiers at the base, and the Syrian media also did not report the meeting until it was over.
On 21 November last year, Putin summoned Al-Assad to Sochi, having him flown on a Russian military jet without an entourage or even a translator.
Russian arrogance was apparent on this occasion too, as the Syrian flag was notable by its absence. The Syrian state media did not report the visit until a day later.
Al-Assad has thus got used to being summoned to meet Putin, indicating that he is the Russian puppet in Syria. He is too weak to demand the presence of a full Syrian delegation at these meetings, and they are only fully reported in the Russian media.
It is not clear what the real purpose of the recent visit was, and most reports have stated that Putin informed Al-Assad that Russia expected “foreign armed forces in Syria” to leave and that this would be part of the settlement of the conflict.
They say that the focus has been on humanitarian aid and reconstruction after a political settlement.
It was not apparent which foreign troops Putin was referring to, however, since Russia, Iran, the US, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, the Kurds and opposition Syrian forces all have troops in Syria.
Some believe Russia wants to be part of the West’s effort to curb the Iranian influence in Syria, and that when Putin said “foreign armed forces” he was referring to Iranian forces and militias loyal to Tehran, such as the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and Iraqi sectarian militias.
The statements were made after increased pressure by the West on Iran after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
Some Syrian opposition members said Russia had summoned Al-Assad to tell him it did not want him to sign any economic deals with Iran and to turn down Iran’s request to build a naval base south of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.
Russia also wanted to send an indirect message to Iran since it does not want to be forced into a political clash with Tehran in Syria, the opposition members said.
However, the Syrian regime has little influence with the Iranians, especially since they and the Russians control the regime. Nor can the regime impose a path on Iran, which now has many military bases in Syria. Syria’s alliance with Iran is a problem, as is the veiled Russian antagonism towards Tehran.
Russian envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev said Putin’s statements about foreign troops in Syria referred to Iranian troops, Hizbullah militias and Turkish and US forces.
He said it was “a very complicated issue because these measures must be implemented collectively, and the process must begin in parallel to creating stability in Syria.”
The Kremlin also denied the interpretation being put about by the Syrian opposition.
“Some countries have military relations with Syria, but Russia moved its forces into Syria as a result of a request from the Syrian leadership. It has every legitimate right to be there,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“This is unlike other countries whose military presence in Syria is against international law,” he added.
Putin’s summoning of Al-Assad to a meeting every few months may be designed to send a message to the West that Russia has the most influence in Syria, especially since the US, Britain and France have limited their recent involvement to airstrikes that were limited in impact.
When Putin and Al-Assad met at the Hameim base, the Russian president gave orders to begin preparing for the Russian withdrawal from Syria, saying he had ordered “the minister of defence and the military chief of staff to begin redeploying Russian troops to permanent positions.”
Putin threatened what he called “terrorists” that unprecedented Russian strikes would come “if they dare to show themselves again”.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said that withdrawing Russian troops from Syria would “depend on developments” and that the two military bases at Hameim and Tartus “will continue operating”.
Six months later, Russia has not withdrawn any of its troops from Syria and has in fact increased their presence.
At the first Sochi meeting, Putin said there was a need for a political solution to the conflict in Syria, and Russia was relying on the UN to play an effective role in reaching a settlement.
However, at the same time Moscow has obstructed UN Security Council Resolutions that could have lessened the fighting in Syria. It has also blocked extending the international fact-finding mission on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.
It has deployed more military units, including in the capital Damascus, and is keen on protecting the regime militarily and politically.
The conclusion of the meeting was an invitation to another meeting in Astana, part of a seemingly endless series that aims to undermine the Geneva Process sponsored by the major powers and the UN.
The Geneva I Declaration states that a political solution in Syria should include forming a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including taking charge of the transitional phase, overseeing the creation of a new constitution and preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections under UN and international supervision.
At Astana, the Russians, together with guarantors of the de-escalation zones in Syria, Turkey and Iran, have pushed the regime and individuals in the opposition to form a committee to “amend” the country’s 2012 constitution, which the opposition does not recognise.
After nine Astana meetings, the outcome has been keeping the de-escalation zones in force, giving the regime and Russia more opportunity to take control of key locations on the ground. It has also recommended “continued efforts to promote a political settlement by implementing the recommendations of the Sochi Dialogue,” often interpreted as a way for the regime to have a conversation with itself.
Putin also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi, and he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron soon to discuss issues including Syria.
Moscow wants support for its actions in Syria “in coordination with legitimate powers,” Putin said during his meeting with Merkel.
Putin will likely continue his political and military manouevres to consolidate Russian power in Syria.
He will continue to support the Syrian regime, which has killed nearly one million Syrian citizens and bankrupted the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Summons or meeting?