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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Russian defence minister flies into Damascus to hand deliver a letter from Vladimir Putin

Moscow says it backs Bashar Al Assad's plan to recapture the whole country

epa07448916 A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) receiving Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (L), Damascus, Syria, 19 March 2019. According to SANA, Assad said the Russian-Syrian coordination, especially in the military and political domains, were one of the decisive factors of Syrias steadfastness in the face of terrorism. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
epa07448916 A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) receiving Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (L), Damascus, Syria, 19 March 2019. According to SANA, Assad said the Russian-Syrian coordination, especially in the military and political domains, were one of the decisive factors of Syrias steadfastness in the face of terrorism. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Damascus on Tuesday to meet the country’s embattled leader and deliver a letter from President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Defence Ministry said that Mr Shoigu discussed “issues related to the fight against international terrorism along with various aspects of the Middle East security and post-conflict settlement” with President Bashar Al Assad.

"The main thing is that we were able to save the Syrian state and create conditions for the return of peaceful life," Mr Shoigu said.

The ministry said the talks focused on efforts to help Syrian refugees return home and how to better deliver humanitarian assistance.

epa07448905 A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) meeting with the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (L), Damascus, Syria, 19 March 2019. According to SANA, Assad said the Russian-Syrian coordination, especially in the military and political domains, were one of the decisive factors of Syrias steadfastness in the face of terrorism. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
A handout photo from the state-run SANA agency shows Syrian President Bashar Assad meeting with the Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu in Damascus on March 19, 2019. EPA

Russia has been a key supporter of the Assad regime since intervening in the country’s eight-year civil war that began in 2015. With massive air support from Moscow as well as special forces on the ground, government troops and Iranian militias – including Hezbollah – have clawed back over half the country with a string of strategic government victories around Damascus, the centre of the country and the south.

Now, Idlib province remains the last major rebel-held territory in the country but despite a de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia to prevent an offensive that would impact millions of civilians, clashes and airstrikes have been increasing in recent months.

The Russian official told Mr Al Assad that Moscow would continue to support Damascus recapture the entire country.

On Monday, Syrian Defence Minister Ali Ayoub said both Idlib and areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – a Kurdish led, multi-ethnic force – would be recaptured by the government.

During the meeting, Mr Al Assad said co-ordination between Moscow and Damascus was a key factor behind victories over ISIS and Al-Qaeda-linked groups, the official Sana news agency reported.

Mr Shoigu reportedly told Mr Al Assad that Western nations had sought to “hamper positive changes in Syria and create new obstacles for ending the crisis.”

As well as urging all sides to avoid an armed clash around Idlib, many nations in the West have been clear that any reconstruction aid or future assistance is still pegged to political transition and reform. Although positions have been softening, the thinking remains that Mr Assad cannot stay on.

Despite a fracture of the state and its authority almost non-existent in places, Mr Assad's weary forces are now in control of much of the country and there seems little incentive for him to stand down.

In this Monday, March 18, 2019, photo, Islamic State militant positions are ablaze in Baghouz, Syria as U.S-backed Syrian Democratic forces pound the group's remaining territory. On Tuesday, a spokesman for U.S.-backed forces fighting IS in Syria says his fighters are in control of an encampment in the village of Baghouz where IS militants have been besieged for months. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
ISIS militant positions ablaze in Baghouz, Syria as US-backed Syrian Democratic forces pound the group's remaining territory. AP

The pair also discussed the battle taking place east of the Euphrates where US-backed SDF is fighting the last holdout of ISIS diehards.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said his fighters were now in control of an encampment outside the village of Baghouz in east Syria that until now has been the last holdout of ISIS fighters, supporters and families. As the US-backed forces have moved in, thousands of those inside the redoubt have surrendered.

Mr Bali said the clashes were on elsewhere in the village as ISIS militants continued to fight back.

In a tweet on Tuesday, he said that controlling the encampment in Baghouz marks "significant progress" in the fight but that it's "not a victory announcement".

The SDF will also complicate Mr Al Assad’s, Russian-backed dream of regaining the entire country. Now controlling around a third of Syria, the Kurdish-led force has expanded and fought back ISIS to create a large area of self-governed territory.

With US backing and American forces potentially staying after the ground war against ISIS is over, it will make a Syrian regime assault against the Kurds to recapture the area a costly undertaking.

However, the Assad regime and the Kurdish forces have had a relatively stable relationship of non-armed engagement through the conflict.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters rest after returning from the front line after territorial gains over Islamic State militants in Baghouz, Syria, Tuesday, March 19, 2019. On Tuesday, a spokesman for U.S.-backed forces fighting IS in Syria says his fighters are in control of an encampment in the village of Baghouz where IS militants have been besieged for months. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
SDF fighters rest after returning from the front line after territorial gains over ISIS militants in Baghouz, Syria. AP

Updated: March 20, 2019 02:26 PM

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