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Russia defense minister meets with Syria’s Assad, hands him message from Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia’s defense minister has traveled to Damascus where he handed a message from President Vladimir Putin to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the Russian Defense Ministry says.

The ministry said on March 19 that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Syrian president had discussed “issues related to fighting international terrorism along with various aspects of Mideast security and post-conflict settlement.”

Russia, along with Iran, has given Assad crucial military backing throughout the eight-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

Russia helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor when it launched a campaign of air strikes on his opponents and stepped up its military presence on the ground in Syria in 2015.

The United States and its allies have blamed Russia for allowing Assad’s forces to continue fighting in a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

“With Russia’s support, a significant success in the fight against terrorism has been achieved,” Shoigu said in Damascus, according to a statement published by the Russian Defense Ministry.

“We were able to save the Syrian state and create conditions for the return of peaceful life,” the minister added.

Shoigu accused “Western countries” of “hampering positive changes in Syria” and creating “new obstacles for ending the crisis.”

During the meeting, Assad said coordination between Moscow and Damascus was a key factor behind victories over the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, Syria’s official news agency SANA reported.

SANA said that Damascus and Moscow had agreed on the need to restore stability and counter foreign influence in areas east of the Euphrates River, where U.S.-backed forces have cornered holdout IS fighters in a tiny patch of land, and the northwestern rebel-controlled region of Idlib.

With the help of its Russian and Iranian backers, Assad’s forces now controls nearly two-thirds of the country.