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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

 Syria military operation 'wrapping up', Putin tells Al Assad in Russia

Russian president Vladimir Putin told the Syrian leader he wanted to meet him in advance of a gathering, planned for this week in Russia, with the leaders of Turkey and Iran

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran will meet for Syria talks in Sochi on Wednesday after Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al Assad said the conflict was switching from military operations to a political solution.

In a rare foray out of his devastated country, the Syrian president met with Mr Putin in the same Russian city where Wednesday's talks will take place.

Present will be the presidents of Iran and Turkey, two powers heavily involved in the conflict in Syria.

During his meeting Mr Al Assad late on Monday, the Russian president said: "We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists, but as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up.”

Mr Al Assad has only ventured outside of Syria twice - both times to Russia - since the conflict began as protests against his rule in March 2011. His brutal suppression of demonstrations sparked the war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Mr Al Assad’s first visit to Russia was in October 2015, shortly after Moscow launched its military campaign in Syria to shore up Mr Al Assad's forces. The intervention turned the war in the favour of the Syrian president.

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"I think that now the most important thing, of course, is to move on the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution [to the conflict]," Mr Putin said.

Mr Al Assad told the Russian leader: "At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process.

"And we believe that the situation we now have on the ground and in the political sense permits us to expect progress in the political process. We count on the support of Russia to ensure the non-interference of outside players in the political process," he said.

With the Syrian government controlling most of the country and ISIL fighters in disarray, Mr Putin told the Syrian leader that Moscow is about to curtail its military presence there.

The meeting in Sochi, which lasted three hours, came ahead of Wednesday’s summit between the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey. Iran and Russia have been Mr Al Assad's main backers while Turkey supports the opposition. But Ankara's criticism of Mr Al Assad has reduced as the war has ground on.

Mr Putin had spoken with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to "assure them that Russia will work with Syrian leadership to prepare the groundwork for possible understandings" that could be reached on Wednesday to "make sure" that agreements reached will be "viable," Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin's spokesman, said on Tuesday.

Asked whether Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad have talked about the Syrian president's future in post-war Syria, Mr Peskov said "possible options for political settlement have been discussed."

Faced with pressure from other nations urging Mr Al Assad to step down, Moscow has insisted that it is up to the Syrian people to vote Mr Al Assad in or out.

The Russian president also said he would follow up his meeting with Mr Al Assad with telephone calls to Donald Trump, and to Middle Eastern leaders, including King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

“Today [Tuesday] there will be Mr Putin’s telephone conversation with the king of Saudi Arabia, and one can certainly expect that Mr Putin will inform his Saudi counterpart about yesterday’s meeting,” Mr Peskov said.

It comes a day after the Russian envoy visited the UAE to strengthen ties between the two countries.