Despite international sanctions and condemnation, the Russia-backed Assad regime is exploring ways to take back opposition and rebel-held territory where millions of displaced Syrians reside.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Syrian regime’s Bashar Assad have met in Moscow to discuss cooperation between their armies and how to continue operations to gain control of the last opposition and rebel-held areas in Syria.
The meeting on Monday night, reported on Tuesday, between the two leaders was the first since they held a summit in the Syrian capital in January last year.
Putin last received Assad in Russia in 2018 at his summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Syrian regime TV described it as a long meeting and said the two were later joined by Syrian regime foreign minister and Russia’s defence minister to discuss mutual relations and fighting terrorism.
Putin criticised the presence of foreign troops in Syria, saying they are there against the will of the Syrian regime and are blocking the consolidation of the war-torn country, the Kremlin said in a statement on Tuesday.
Putin was referring to hundreds of US troops stationed in eastern Syria and working with PKK/YPG terror group in battling Daesh, as well as Turkish forces in northern Syria.
He said the presence of foreigners is illegal because they don’t have permission to be there from the United Nations or the regime.
In recent weeks, Syrian opposition has said that Russian warplanes have been carrying out strikes on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major opposition and rebel stronghold in the country.
The region is home to some 4 million people, many of them internally displaced by the conflict.
Any push to take rebel-held areas with force can push a new wave of refugees towards Europe, which is already divided over how to handle the crisis.
Last week, a Russian-negotiated cease-fire deal went into effect to end a government siege and intense fighting in the southern city of Daraa. The deal brought areas held by the rebels in the city under Syrian regime’s control for the first time since 2013.
Putin calls for political dialogue
Russia joined Syria’s 10-year conflict in September 2015, when the Syrian regime’s military appeared close to collapse, and has since helped in tipping the balance of power in favour of Assad, whose forces now control much of the country.
Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed across Syria and they also have a military air base along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Iranian advisers and Iran-backed groups, including the powerful Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, are also present and have fought on the side of the Damascus regime.
Assad has made very few visits abroad since the conflict began.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests and later turned into a civil war, with foreign proxy actors. that has killed half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, including five million who are refugees outside the country.
Endless rounds of UN-backed peace talks have failed to end Syria's war. A parallel process led by Russia and Turkey has also been unable to resolve the conflict.
Putin said he hoped Assad would continue "dialogue with your political opponents".