Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria's embattled leader Bashar al-Assad stressed that military operations in Syria must be followed by political steps to try to end the conflict, during a surprise visit to Moscow by Assad on Tuesday.
"We are ready to make our contribution not only during armed hostilities in the fight against terrorism but also during a political process," Putin told Assad. Assad for his part also stressed the importance of "further political steps," according to a Kremlin statement.
This was Assad's first known foreign visit since the internecine civil war broke out in Syria back in 2011. On Wednesday, Assad's spokesperson told AFP "the visit to Moscow was yesterday and he is today in Damascus."
In the visit, Assad said, "terrorism, which has now spread through the region, would have taken much larger areas and would have spread throughout much larger territory if it were not for your actions and your decisions," in comments translated into Russian.
All rebel forces have been termed "terrorists" by Assad, including those backed by the West. Russia claimed its recent escalation in military involvement in Syria is targeting Islamic State (ISIS), but figures show it is hitting Western backed rebels and civilians instead.
Putin said it was the Syrian people that should decide the fate of their country.
"At the end of the day a long-term settlement can be achieved on the basis of a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups," the Kremlin strongman said. "And ultimately, the final word no doubt should rest solely with the Syrian
The unusual meeting and talk of a "political process" came the same day the Tel Aviv based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) published a research article, arguing that Israel needs to topple Assad now to check the spread of influence by Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah.
In the article co-authored by INSS director Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of Military Intelligence, it was argued that Russia may seek a diplomatic solution, including Assad's removal, so as to maintain influence and control by Assad's Alawite clan while reducing global pressure on both Syria and its backer Russia.
"In case of failure in moving the 'Western' coalition into concurrent action against Assad and ISIS, Israel should strive to realize…an Assad-free Syria – as an arrangement reached in partnership with Russia," they wrote. "In any case, Israel must gear up for active efforts to topple Assad, based on the understanding that beyond the moral imperative, Assad’s ouster will lead to a strategic loss for Iran and Hezbollah in the bleeding Syrian state."
AFP contributed to this report.