Syrian President Bashar al-Assad returned home Wednesday after making a rare trip to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin and discuss the three-week old Russian military campaign backing Assad’s army.
Assad is not known to have traveled abroad since 2011, the same year security forces cracked down on peaceful protests and the situation in his country spiraled into a civil war that has left at least 240,000 people dead.
During Tuesday’s meeting in Moscow, Assad thanked Putin for Russia’s help, saying that without it “terrorism” would have spread to more areas.
The Syrian government routinely refers to rebel fighters as “terrorists” and Russia has been criticized by the United States and other countries for targeting rebels and not focusing its airstrikes on Islamic State militants.
Kerry, Lavrov meet Friday
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry announced Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Friday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna to discuss the situation in Syria, and will be joined by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The ministry says Kerry and Lavrov spoke in a telephone conversation initiated by the U.S. side, during which they discussed preparations for the Vienna meeting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmity Peskov said Wednesday Putin discussed the situation in Syria during telephone conversations with Turkey’s President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Memo of understanding
On Tuesday, Russia and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding providing a framework for both countries’ aircraft to maintain a “safe distance” from one another while operating over Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook declined to say exactly what that distance is. But he said U.S. crews know exactly what it is. “It is safe to say that anything that could be deemed as threatening or hostile would be deemed a violation of this agreement.”
Cook said the Russians requested the full agreement not be shared publicly. But he said it contains protocols that include “maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communications frequencies, and the establishment of a communication line on the ground.” He said the ground communication would serve as a back-up in case mid-air protections failed.
The agreement covers all types of aircraft over Syria, including drones, and it is specific to Syria. It does not apply to any other country.
“The Russians now need to abide by these flight safety protocols” in Syria, Cook said. “We don’t want miscalculation.”
Pentagon officials have stressed the air guidelines are not part of a broader agreement on how the two countries could operate in Syria. Nor do they indicate the Uniteed States is in any way supportive of what Russia is doing there.
“We continue to believe that Russia’s strategy in Syria is counterproductive and the Assad regime will only make Syrian civil war worse,” Cook said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that Russian airstrikes killed at least 45 people Monday in Latakia province.
Cook asserted the United States will continue with its own strategy in Syria, attacking the Islamic State group and supporting Syrian moderates. The U.S.-led coalition has targeted Islamic State militants in Syria with more than 2,600 airstrikes since September 2014.
The Russians asked the United States for talks on “deconfliction” after beginning airstrikes last month.
The Pentagon has reported no major incidents in Syrian skies since Russia started airstrikes there, although there have been a couple of instances when coalition aircraft have had to change course to avoid getting too close to Russian jets.