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General

Putin defies West in Middle East with Assad Moscow visit

media Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad put an end to a four-year travel hiatus on Tuesday when he made a secret visit  to Moscow to "thank" Russia's Vladimir Putin for his support in the Syrian conflict. The visit has rattled the West, which sees it as a means for Moscow to carve out influence in the Middle East.

He came to express his "gratitude" to Russia for "supporting Syria's unity and independence." These were the words of the Syrian leader shortly after his return from a surprise visit to Moscow, revealed in a statement by the Kremlin on Wednesday.

It was Bashar al-Assad's first official visit since the civil war in his country broke out in 2011. And where else could he go but Moscow?

Since Russian combat planes begun bombarding Syria last month, they've struck at least eighty-three positions held by "terrorists," the Kremlin says.

That's eighty-three less "terrorists" that Assad has to fight. So the Syrian leader has good reason to be grateful, and his visit abroad today denotes his renewed confidence.

However, it's also galvanized critics of Moscow, who maintain Putin's military intervention in Syria is nothing more than an excuse to prop up the Assad regime.

France's President François Hollande was perfectly clear on that point, telling reporters on Wednesday that nothing should be done to "bolster" Assad, "who is the problem, and therefore cannot be the solution".

The question of what to do with Assad in an eventual political transition remains a thorny issue between Russia and Western allies.

Turkey reiterated that confusion on Wednesday, insisting that Assad must go, during a surprise phone call between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. It was even more surprising given the divergence in their opinions as Putin continues to maintain his beleaguered ally should be part of talks.

Assad, a pawn in Putin's power game

"Without the Syrian government Russia becomes less influent in the Middle East," Sarah Lain, a research fellow at the UK-based Royal Services Institute told RFI.

"This is a way of Russia showing it can undermine US Foreign policy and the US-led coalition," Lain said.

Putin's aims in inviting Assad to Moscow analysts suggest, goes beyond the scope of merely fighting terrorism or hashing out a political solution that no one can agree to anyway. The real ploy is influence.

"Receiving Assad in Syria is way of saying we've saved the regime, look Assad can travel now.. he's our ally and we more or less have influence over him," Marc Pierini, a former EU diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe told RFI.

"Secondly, calling the Turkish President is a way of saying, even though we disagree, I'm centre-stage in discussions that matter in the world right now."

The Russian leader also called the Saudi king, who like Erdogan, is very suspicious of Putin, but both are having to listen to him.

Moscow is flexing its muscles so it can have more leverage in the Middle East and show the West that it's an international player to be reckoned with. Putin has never revcovered from the humiliation of EU sanctions in retaliation for his annexation of Crimea and for fomenting the conflict in Ukraine.

But is opening a new war front in Syria, when there are already so many actors vying for influence, the best way to get back at the West?

Right now Putin is playing a game of copy-cat. "Russia is using the same language as the US, i.e. in countering terrorism," Sarah Lain explained.

"Yet it's clear from the air strikes Russia is making and the actions it's taking in Syria that its definition of terrorism is actually much broader and their campaign is actually supporting Assad," she added.

Russian war planes strike Syrian medical staff

Emma Suleiman, a consultant who works with NGOs in Syria agrees. "The Russian strikes are mainly targeting opposition forces fighting on the ground, in Aleppo right now where there is a humanitarian disaster, there was no ISIS there," she told RFI.

Assad's talks with Putin coincided with the forced eviction on Tuesday of tens of thousands of Syrians from Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.

"Three hospitals were targeted by Russian military this weekend alone. Hospitals with innocent medical staff, who were only doing their job. Is ISIS hiding in hospitals?" Suleiman said defiantly.

At least thirteen people, including medical staff were killed when Russian warplanes struck a field hospital in northwestern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday.

Putin's indefatigable support for Assad in his battle for influence, may give him renewed clout yes, but it won't protect him from criticism, if war crimes are revealed.

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