Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew into Moscow on Tuesday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in what is believed to be Assad's first trip abroad since start of the civil war in 2011.
The move, which underscores how Russia has become a major player Syria’s civil war, comes just three weeks after Moscow began a campaign of airstrikes purportedly aimed at ISIL targets, but which have also seen Western-backed anti-Assad rebels be hit in raids.
The Kremlin characterized the trip as a “working visit” at which the leaders discussed their joint military campaign against rebels in Syria and at which Assad thanked Putin for his military assistance.
The Syrian presidency confirmed that Assad and Putin held a series of meetings during the trip, with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu also present at the talks.
After the meetings, Putin said he was hopeful that a solution may be reached for the war in Syria, where Russia has been carrying out airstrikes since the end of September.
“We assume that a long-term solution may be reached on the basis of the latest military developments and political process with participation from all political, ethnic and religious groups,” Putin said.
“This decision can be made only by the Syrian people. Syria is a friendly country. And we are ready to support it not only militarily but politically as well.”
It appears the Kremlin waited for the Syrian leader to return home before breaking the news of the one-day visit.
The Syrian leader stressed the importance of “further political steps,” according to a Kremlin statement.
He thanked Putin for his decision to launch its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, Russia's first military foray outside the former Soviet Union since its occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
“I need to say that the political steps which Russia has taken since the start of the crisis prevented the events in Syria from developing along a more tragic scenario,” Assad said in quotes released by the Kremlin.
“Terrorism which has now spread through the region would have consumed much larger areas and would have spread throughout much more territory if it were not for your actions and your decisions,” he said.
About 250,000 people have been killed since the conflict first began in March 2011, and half the population has been forced to flee their homes.
Putin said it was the Syrian people that should decide the fate of their country.
“At the end of the day a long-term settlement can be achieved on the basis of a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups,” Putin said.
“And ultimately, the final word no doubt should rest solely with the Syrian people.”
The military intervention of Russia in Syria has, to a certain degree, changed the equation in Syria’s civil war, strengthening the position of Assad and indicating that Moscow may play a key role in any transition to peace. Iran has also long been a strong Syrian government ally, and the fact that Assad chose to visit Moscow before Tehran is likely to be interpreted in some circles as a sign that Russia has now emerged as Assad's most important foreign friend.
Meanwhile, it weakens the long-held position of the West and its allies that Assad’s departure must be a condition of any transition in the country.
On Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a transition was needed in Syria which guaranteed the departure of Assad.
Davutoglu said there was no change in Turkey's position that Assad's government had lost legitimacy.
He was responding to questions from reporters after senior government officials said on Tuesday that Ankara was ready to accept a political transition in which Assad remains in symbolic power for six months before leaving office.
Al Jazeera and wire services