Syria's support for Russia over Ukraine 'not just loyalty', Al Assad says

Russia has been one of Syria's few allies during years of war and political isolation

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, on Wednesday. AP
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Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has expressed support for Russia's military operation in Ukraine, adding that his country's position is not only “out of loyalty”.

“We have this position not only because we have friendly relations and we're loyal to you, but because the world really needs stability,” Mr Al Assad said in the Russian capital on Wednesday.

It was his first official visit outside the Middle East since the earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria last month.

During a meeting, Mr Al Assad thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his country's aid efforts in Syria after the 7.4-magnitude quake on February 6.

Mr Al Assad also said bilateral ministerial meetings held in Moscow over the past few days were “some of the best” that the two nations have had in years.

"De-Nazification" of Ukraine has been one of Russia's stated objectives following the invasion. In the country's 2019 national elections, Ukraine's three leading far-right parties formed a bloc to secure seats, but the bloc, the United Nationalist Alliance, secured only 2 per cent of the vote.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy is Jewish and says that three of his family members died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad would discuss co-operation in the political, trade and humanitarian spheres, “as well as prospects for an overall settlement of the situation in and around Syria”.

Mr Putin said bilateral trade grew by 7 per cent last year.

“Next year we are going to mark the 80th anniversary since diplomatic relations between our two countries were established,” Mr Putin said.

Talks will be held in two parts, including a working breakfast with Mr Al Assad to discuss “all the most important topics of co-operation”, said Mr Putin.

The two leaders last met in September 2021, when the Syrian president also visited Moscow.

An official reception was held at Vnukovo International Airport, where Mr Al Assad was received by Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Mr Putin's special representative.

Also there were Aleksandr Yefimov, Russian ambassador to Syria, and Bashar Al Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to Russia, the official Sana news agency reported.

Mr Al Assad was accompanied by a “large ministerial delegation”, the Syrian presidency said.

The national anthems of the two countries were played and Mr Al Assad reviewed the guard of honour.

Mr Al Assad laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin wall.

Experts believe Mr Al Assad’s visit is linked to the need to co-operate on a joint strategy with Russia in light of new prospects for the rapprochement process between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“The political processes in the region are taking on a new dynamic, therefore the leaders of Russia and Syria, Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al Assad, need to get on the same page,” Nidal Sabi, an expert in inter-Arab relations, told the Russia Tass news agency.

Mr Al Assad has been politically isolated in the region since the start of Syria's war in 2011, triggered by the government's suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, with his country expelled from the Cairo-based Arab League.

But since the earthquake, Arab leaders have made overtures to his government.

Late last month, Egypt's Sameh Shoukry became the third Arab foreign minister to meet Mr Al Assad since the February 6 earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in total, with about 6,000 dead in Syria.

Strong allies

In February, Mr Al Assad called Mr Putin and expressed his support for Russia's war in Ukraine, the Syrian presidency said.

Mr Al Assad described the Russian offensive as a “correction of history”.

Syria has been a staunch ally of Moscow since Russia launched a military campaign in the country in 2015 that helped to turn the tide of the civil war in favour of Mr Al Assad.

Russia supported Damascus through the extensive aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas.

Moscow increased its presence in Syria after the US pulled out its forces in 2019.

Russia's naval base in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tartous is its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Western intelligence sources say Russia's costly war in Ukraine has forced it to push some assets from Syria, although the country remains Moscow's firmest foothold on the southern flank of Nato.

The visit coincides with the 12th anniversary of the uprising in Syria that began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011.

The protests turned into an armed revolt after Mr Al Assad used force to crush the opposition.

It became a multi-sided conflict that has pulled in neighbours and world powers, as well as causing the largest displacement crisis since the Second World War.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 6:52 AM