It's only two years ago that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad visited Russia. It was his first visit abroad since the uprising against him began in March 2011. President Vladimir Putin assured the world that "positive results in military operations will lay the base for … working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces". Mr Al Assad, for his part, agreed, saying "military action must be followed by political steps". Mr Al Assad, more secure than at any time since the Syrian civil war began, made a second visit to Russia this week.
It is hard not conclude, on the basis of the meeting between Mr Al Assad and Mr Putin, that the pledge advanced by the Kremlin in 2015 to search for a political solution to the Syrian crisis has fallen by the wayside. What is emerging in its place is a justification for the continued presence of Mr Al Assad on Syria's political scene. On Monday, Mr Putin "noted with satisfaction" the Syrian president's "readiness to work with all those who want peace". Were it not so tragic, this would be a laughable claim. The truth, as measured by the actions of Mr Al Assad himself, is that he is not interested in working with others to secure peace. His purpose is limited to self-perpetuation, and he has demonstrated that he will try to achieve this at any cost.
The tally of people killed or brutalised by the Syrian government continues to rise in line with Mr Al Assad's strengthening grip on power. At the same time, a series of internationally mediated talks have failed to yield results for the simple reason that Mr Al Assad has refused to budge. As these pages have noted in the past, for a political solution to emerge in Syria, there has to be engagement between the parties.
A major obstacle to any political progress is Mr Al Assad, whose presence is an affront to the millions of Syrians who yearn for a life of dignity. But shielded diplomatically and supported militarily by Russia, Mr Al Assad clearly believes that his conduct carries no costs. Moscow recently blocked a UN resolution to extend an international probe into chemical weapons usage in Syria, and talks scheduled in the weeks ahead might fail to deliver results if Russia continues this trend.
The world may reluctantly have accepted that Mr Al Assad may stay in his role temporarily to ease Syria’s political transition. But the Syrian president’s pilgrimage to Sochi suggests that he is preparing to prolong his own rule. There could be no greater insult to Syrians than allowing Mr Al Assad to get away with it after all that his country has endured.
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