By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian and Syrian press reported Wednesday, as Russian jets continued to pound opposition strongholds in the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.
The meeting, which took place late Tuesday, according to media accounts, was only announced early Wednesday as part of an apparent effort to maintain some hours of secrecy.
It was Assad’s first publicly announced trip outside Syria since the armed rebellion against his rule erupted in 2011.
Moscow has long been a chief ally of Assad and last month significantly escalated its aid, launching an intensive aerial bombing campaign in Syria against antigovernment insurgents — including some groups that reportedly receive clandestine support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Moscow says its warplanes are solely targeting “terrorists” in Syria, including various al-Qaida-linked extremists who have come to dominate the armed opposition.
Washington has condemned the Russian aerial offensive in Syria as counterproductive and “doomed to failure,” in the words of President Barack Obama.
In Moscow, Russian news agencies reported, presidents Assad and Putin discussed the military situation in Syria and both agreed that a political solution is urgently needed to end the Syrian conflict.
“Naturally, the talks focused on fighting terrorist extremist groups, carrying on with the Russian operation, and support for the Syrian army’s offensive,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Moscow on Wednesday, according to Russia’s RT news service.
On Russian television, Putin lauded Syria’s role.
“The Syrian people practically by themselves have been fending off and fighting against terrorism for several years,” Putin said.
Images on Russian TV showed Assad speaking with Putin in a formal gathering that included several other high-level Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
U.S. officials maintain that Assad has been a “magnet” for terrorism and must leave office before any permanent political resolution can be reached.
Officials in Moscow and Damascus say the Russian campaign has been a major boost for the Syrian military. Pro-government forces in Syria suffered significant territorial losses earlier this year to various opposition groups, including Islamic State, the breakaway al-Qaida faction that is being targeted by a separate, U.S.-led air bombardment campaign.
The Syrian Army, backed by Russian airstrikes, has in recent weeks launched ground assaults in key strategic areas of western Syria, including in coastal Latakia, where Russia has refurbished an air base as a platform for its Syrian campaign. Russia is coordinating its attacks with Damascus, which says it requested Moscow’s military aid.
With Russian air support, Syria says its forces have also been pushing back “terrorists” outside Damascus, the capital; in Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces to the north; and in the vicinity of the northern city of Aleppo, which has long been divided between government and opposition control.
Assisting Syrian ground troops are hundreds of military advisers from Iran, another key backer of Assad, and thousands of militiamen from Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based group allied with Iran.
Russian officials have said the air operation in Syria would last several months, but have not set forth a precise date for its conclusion. Russia says it has no intention of sending ground forces to Syria.
Since Moscow’s air onslaught began Sept. 30, Russian and Syrian officials say, Russian aircraft and guided missiles have hit scores of “terrorist” targets, including ammo dumps, bomb-making factories, underground bunkers, gun emplacements, headquarter compounds and armed vehicles.
U.S. officials have voiced concern that Russian attacks are striking “moderate” rebel factions, including some backed by the United States and its allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other U.S. partners have provided substantial military aid to what they call “moderate” rebel groups and have denied arming “terrorist” fighters in Syria.
The Russian air campaign appears to have injected new urgency into long-stalled initiatives to craft a political solution to the Syrian war, which has cost more than 200,000 lives, left much of the country in ruins and forced more than 4 million into exile. A wave of refugees from Syria and elsewhere into Europe has triggered a crisis in some European nations and resulted in calls from U.S. allies to ramp up efforts for peace talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this week that he planned to meet with Russian and regional leaders in a bid to “work through real and tangible options that could perhaps reignite a political process and bring about a political solution in Syria.”
The Obama administration has long insisted that Assad must step down as part of any political accord in Syria. But Washington has lately modified its stance and said that Assad could remain for an unspecified but limited period as part of a negotiated transition government in Syria. No formal Syrian peace talks have been scheduled.
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin