Russia's Putin secretly hosts Assad in fresh drive for Syria peace deal

MOSCOW/BEIRUT, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad late on Monday for three hours of talks to lay the groundwork for a new push by Moscow to end Syria's conflict now that Islamic State's territorial caliphate is overrun.

Russia is actively trying to broker an international consensus around a peace deal for Syria, over two years after Moscow began a military intervention that turned the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor.

Putin said he would follow up his meeting with Assad by talking in the next 48 hours to international leaders with influence over the conflict, among them U.S. President Donald Trump, the Saudi king, and the leaders of Iran and Turkey.

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Previous attempts to end Syria's six years of war have foundered because of bitter disagreements among players in the conflict, both inside and outside Syria, especially whether Assad himself should stay in power.

After the talks in Russia -- Assad's first publicly-declared travel outside Syria since a trip to Moscow in October, 2015 -- a Kremlin spokesman declined to say if Assad's own future had come up in the discussions, saying only that was up to the Syrian people.

In a sign that international attempts may be underway to bridge the differences between rival sides in the conflict, leading Syrian opposition figures, including former prime minister Riyad Hijab, resigned.

Hijab headed the opposition High Negotiations Committee, formed with Saudi backing, and had insisted on Assad's removal from power at the start of a political transition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Moscow, said the resignations would make the opposition more reasonable and realistic.

On Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani -- whose countries back opposing sides in the Syria conflict -- will travel to Russia for a three-way meeting with Putin aimed at advancing the Syrian peace process.

SECRET VISIT

Assad's visit to Russia was brief and closely-guarded. He flew in on Monday evening, held talks, and flew out four hours after landing, according to the Kremlin. Officials did not release word of the meeting until Tuesday morning.

Sitting either side of a small coffee table in a conference room at Putin's residence in Sochi, southern Russia, Putin told Assad it was time to pivot from a focus on military operations to a search for a peaceful solution.

Syrian government forces and their allies at the weekend took control of Albu Kamal, the last major Syrian town held by Islamic State.

"We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up," Putin told Assad, in comments broadcast by Russian television.

"Now the most important thing, of course, is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution (to the conflict)," Putin said.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, dressed in an olive-colored uniform, looked on as Putin and Assad spoke.

ASSAD'S FUTURE

Wearing a dark suit and sitting across a small coffee table from Putin, Assad told the Russian leader: "At this stage, especially after we achieved victory over terrorists, it is in our interests to move forward with the political process.

"And we believe that the situation we now have on the ground and in the political sense permits us to expect progress in the political process. We count on the support of Russia to ensure the non-interference of outside players in the political process," he said through an interpreter.

"We don't want to look backwards. We welcome all those who truly want to see a political solution. We are ready to have a dialog with them," said Assad.

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
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A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Putin and Assad last met in Moscow on Oct. 20, 2015, a few weeks after Moscow launched its military operation in Syria, which has beaten back anti-Assad rebels and propped up struggling government forces.

Underscoring the importance of the Russian military to Assad, Putin presented the Syrian leader to top military commanders assembled at his Sochi residence.

"On behalf of the entire Syrian people, I express my gratitude for what you have done," Assad told them. "We will not forget it."

Assad's opponents, and Western governments, have accused Russia of killing significant numbers of Syrian civilians with its air strikes, allegations Moscow denies.

Some people familiar with the Kremlin's thinking say that, to reach a peace deal, Russia would not insist on Assad staying in power -- as long as the institutions of the Syrian state remained intact.

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But while Russia is not wedded to Assad, Iran is committed to him. Iranian forces and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia have played a big role in the fighting on the ground, supporting Assad's forces.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah thanked and praised Shi'ite militias including Afghans and Iraqis for their role in the Syria war in a speech on Monday night.

He said the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, had led the battle for Albu Kamal from the frontlines. (Additional reporting by; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Catherine Evans and William Maclean)

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