MOSCOW (Dispatches) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin received his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad for the first time since 2018 and criticized foreign forces that are in Syria without permission or a UN mandate - a rebuke of the United States and Turkey.
Turkish forces are now present in much of the north and northwest, helping to shore up the last major bastion of anti-Assad terrorists, and U.S. forces are supporting Kurdish militants who control parts of the east and northeast.
Assad has made few trips abroad since the war on Syria began in 2011. Putin told him the main problem in Syria was the presence of foreign forces without permission or a UN mandate, “which clearly runs counter to international law”, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
This “undermines your ability to use your best efforts to consolidate the country and promote recovery at a pace that would have been possible if the legitimate government controlled the entire country”.
Syria views the U.S. and Turkish forces as occupiers, while Russian forces and Iranian advisors are there at the government’s invitation.
“Terrorists sustained very serious damage, and the Syrian government, headed by you, controls 90% of the territories,” Putin said, according to the Kremlin.
Pockets of terrorists still remain in Syria, the Russian president said, adding they not only occupy parts of the Syrian soil but also continue to terrorize ordinary people.
“Nevertheless, refugees are actively returning to liberated regions. I have personally witnessed how people are avidly reconstructing their houses, and are working to return to normal life in every sense of the word,” Putin said.
The meeting with Assad on Monday was Putin’s last public engagement before he announced on Tuesday that he was self-isolating as a precaution after several members of his entourage fell ill with COVID-19.
Assad and his wife both recovered from COVID-19 earlier this year.
The Kremlin said Assad had thanked Putin for providing humanitarian aid and for his efforts to halt the “spread of terrorism”.
He lauded what he called the success of Russian and Syrian armies in “liberating occupied territories”.
Assad also said the sanctions imposed by some nations on Syria were “anti-human” and illegitimate.
The United States tightened sanctions against Syria last year, aggravating the worn-torn country’s problems.
The U.S. military has stationed forces and equipment in eastern and northeastern Syria, with the Pentagon claiming that the deployment is aimed at preventing the oilfields in the area from falling into the hands of Daesh terrorists.
Damascus, however, says the unlawful deployment is meant to plunder the country’s resources. Former U.S. president Donald Trump admitted on several occasions that American forces were in Syria for its oil.
After failing to oust the Syrian government through proxies and direct involvement in the conflict, the U.S. government has now stepped up its economic war on the Arab country.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said the two leaders had discussed cooperation between their armies in “combating terrorism and completing the liberation of the land that is still under the control of terrorist organizations”.
The Syrian presidency said the two leaders were joined in their talks by Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In a statement, it said the two sides discussed the importance of reaching political agreements “between Syrians and without any foreign interference.”
Putin said he hoped Assad would continue “dialogue with your political opponents”.
“Only the consolidation of all forces in Syria will allow the country to get back on its feet,” he said.
The Syrian presidency added that Putin and Assad had discussed “economic cooperation”.