- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Russian President Vladimir Putin briefed President Trump by phone Tuesday on Moscow’s plans for ending Syria’s 6-year-old civil war, a development that likely will keep U.S. foe Bashar Assad in power in Damascus and underscores Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin stressed the need to keep Syria’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity intact” and that Mr. Assad favors new presidential and parliamentary elections.

Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters before flying to Florida for Thanksgiving, didn’t answer questions about Mr. Assad’s fate but said the nearly 90-minute call with Mr. Putin was “great.”

“We’re talking very strongly about bringing peace to Syria,” Mr. Trump said. “Very important.”

Mr. Assad met with Mr. Putin on Monday in the Russian resort town of Sochi and thanked him for “saving Syria” with the help of the Russian military. A summit in Sochi this week includes the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, who have taken an increasingly active role in forging Syria’s political future.

The developments, with the Islamic State all but defeated and U.S.-backed rebel groups splintered, make it more likely that Mr. Assad will remain in power, said Jim Phillips, a specialist on the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation.

Russia’s air campaign and Iran’s orchestration of ground offensives have saved Assad’s regime and defeated the fractured rebel camp,” Mr. Phillips said. “Putin is in the driver’s seat in Syria. The Trump administration is focused on defeating ISIS, not Assad.”

Now that the Islamic State has been deprived of its “caliphate,” partly from the efforts of U.S. special operations forces, “it is unlikely that the White House will remain as actively engaged as it has been in Syria,” he said.

The White House said Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin stressed the importance of implementing a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for creating a transitional, united Syrian government, a new constitution and democratic elections. Those elections would be administered by the United Nations and would include refugees.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin expressed support for a U.N.-led process “to peacefully resolve the Syrian civil war, end the humanitarian crisis, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens,” the White House said.

“The two presidents affirmed the importance of fighting terrorism together throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations,” the statement said.

Their discussion was a more detailed follow-up to a brief meeting between the two leaders last week during a summit in Vietnam.

The Kremlin said a political settlement should be based on principles to be worked out during an all-inclusive “internal negotiating process in Syria.”

But the fate of Mr. Assad remains a huge stumbling block to a peace settlement. Moscow says it is gaining Mr. Assad’s support for a political process to end the war, which has killed nearly a half-million people. But the Syrian strongman has long resisted conciliation with opposition groups.

Russian forces also have stood by while Mr. Assad’s military carried out chemical weapons attacks on civilians, including one such atrocity in April that prompted Mr. Trump to order dozens of U.S. missile strikes against a Syrian military base.

Mr. Trump consistently has expressed a desire to work with Moscow in Syria mainly to defeat the Islamic State, with Mr. Assad’s future a lesser concern. During Mr. Putin’s meeting with Mr. Assad, the Russian leader praised Syria for fighting “terrorists.”

Syria is striving in the fight against terrorist groups,” Mr. Putin said, according to a report in the Kremlin-linked news site Sputnik. “The Syrian people are going through very difficult trials and are gradually approaching the final, unavoidable rout of terrorists.”

But forging a closer U.S.-Russia alliance has been complicated by Moscow’s support of the often-brutal Assad regime and by investigations in the U.S. into suspicions that Trump campaign officials colluded with Moscow to interfere in the presidential election last year.

Russia’s successful support for the Assad regime also demonstrates Moscow’s rising influence in the Middle East, Mr. Phillips said.

Putin has used the Syrian war to re-establish Russia in the Middle East as a great power,” he said. “Syria was Russia’s first intervention outside the territory of the old Soviet bloc since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Putin has saved the Assad regime, one of the most active state sponsors of terrorism in the world, second only to Iran.”

Hostilities between Mr. Assad and the Syrian rebels began in March 2011. The civil war sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with 5.1 million people fleeing the country.

Mr. Assad and Mr. Putin agreed during their meeting on Monday that the emphasis in the Syrian conflict has moved from military operations to the search for a political solution.

“Huge successes have been achieved, both on the battlefield [and] on the political level. Many areas in Syria have been liberated from terrorist[s], and civilians who were forced to leave those areas have been able to return,” Mr. Assad said, according to state media.

“We must admit that the operation made it possible to advance the process of political settlement in Syria.”

The Kremlin said Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin also discussed North Korea, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran.

“Both sides expressed satisfaction with the talks, which were businesslike and substantial,” the Kremlin said. “Vladimir Putin informed Donald Trump of the main results of a meeting with Bashar Assad that took place on Nov. 20 at which the Syrian leader confirmed his commitment to the political process, [and] conducting constitutional reform and presidential and parliamentary elections.”

Mr. Putin plans to host a Syrian People’s Congress in Sochi on Dec 2. It would include Syrian opposition groups and Kurdish representatives, potentially a more ambitious forum than the U.N.-led process.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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