Putin meets Assad, declares Syria ready for 'political process'
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on Thursday and said their "military success" in Syria allowed for a large-scale "political process" leading to the withdrawal of foreign forces and the country's reconstruction.
A day after UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warned that a government assault on the rebel-held area of Idlib could affect 2.3 million people, Putin met Assad in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
"After the success of the Syrian government army in the fight against the terrorists," the right conditions are in place for "the start of a political process on a major scale," Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin after the meeting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that "there were detailed discussions" between the two leaders, who last met in December at a Russian military air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. He also visited Putin in Moscow in October 2015, soon after Russia launched its military operation in Syria.
"With the start of the political process in its most active phase, foreign armed forces will withdraw from Syrian territory," Putin said, without specifying which foreign forces.
Russia has been involved in Syria's civil war since September 2015. Its military support not only ensured the survival of Assad's government but also changed the course of the war.
Putin also congratulated Assad on the "successes of the Syrian government's army in the fight against terrorist groups".
"The next task, of course, is the economic recovery and humanitarian aid for those people in a difficult situation," Putin added.
The latest round of Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana wrapped up on Tuesday, but did not make any concrete progress towards ending the seven-year conflict that has cost 350,000 lives.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have been attempting to resolve the conflict in the talks that started last year - in competition with a US- and UN-backed Geneva initiative.
In a statement issued by the Syrian presidency, Assad added on Thursday: "We have evaluated the political process" and will select candidates for a constitutional committee, a suggestion proposed in January at a summit in Sochi that will work with the United Nations.
"Stability is improving, and all that opens the doors to the political process, which we started a while ago," Assad told Putin, according to a transcript of the opening remarks from the meeting posted on the Kremlin website.
"We know it will not be easy because some countries do not want stability to return to Syria. But with you and other partners and friends, we will continue to make strong progress in the peace process," Assad was quoted as saying in the statement.