Russian President Vladimir Putin met Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad in Sochi. As the Syrian regime continues to capture rebel-held territories, Russia is trying to further cement its role as a shaper of regional politics.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a rare meeting with Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad on Thursday and said the "military success" in Syria allowed for a large-scale "political process" leading to the withdrawal of foreign forces and the reconstruction of the country.
A day after UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura warned a regime assault on the rebel-held area of Idlib could affect 2.3 million people, Assad visited Putin in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
After the "success" of the Syrian regime forces in the "fight against the terrorists" the conditions are in place for "the start of a political process on a major scale," Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin following the meeting.
Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran employ the term "terrorist" to refer to all militant, rebel and opposition groups, including those without ties to terror organisations.
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.
"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.
Since Russia intervened on behalf of the regime in 2015, the regime has steadily taken over opposition-held territories, using brutal siege tactics, chemical weapons, and indiscriminate fire and assaults against civilians, including children, that experts have said amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Russia's military support not only ensured the survival of Assad's regime but also changed the course of the war.
"The next task, of course, is the economic recovery and humanitarian aid for those people in a difficult situation," Putin said.
Russia-backed political process
The latest round of Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana wrapped up on Tuesday, but did not, however, make any concrete progress towards ending the seven-year conflict that has cost over 350,000 lives.
Russia, Iran and Turkey have been attempting to resolve the conflict in the talks that started last year in Astana in a process to complement a UN-backed Geneva initiative.
In a statement from Assad's office, the regime leader 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.
According to the Kremlin statement, Assad said, "Thanks to military successes, we are managing to normalise the situation in the country, opening the way for the return of many of our compatriots."
Regime forces recaptured Ghouta from rebels last month after a ferocious offensive that displaced tens of thousands, both to regime-controlled zones around Damascus and to opposition-held parts of northern Syria.
De Mistura, speaking on Wednesday to the UN Security Council's monthly meeting on the Syria conflict, described what he called the classic Syrian regime tactic of a bombardment of a rebel territory followed by negotiations and then mass evacuations from the defeated area.
But the special envoy noted that half of the people in the northern rebel province of Idlib had already fled from other parts of Syria, "and will have nowhere else to go because there is no other place to go."
Putin and Assad met on the eve of a meeting in Sochi between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first face-to-face talk of the year between the veteran leaders.