Will Assad's Moscow visit help end the war?
It was Bashar al-Assad's first foreign visit since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, and came three weeks after Russia launched a campaign of airstrikes against Islamist militants and rebels in Syria that has bolstered Assad's forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used the rare visit to talk up the Kremlin's potential role in helping broker a political settlement to the crisis as he tried to show the West Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.
Indeed, the visit took place two days before a crucial meeting on Syria in Vienna, which will bring together the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia.
|A rumoured Turkish peace plan would allow Assad to remain in power for six months|
The visit also took place amid reports of a Turkish peace plan that would allow Assad to remain in power for six months, until the end of the putative transitional phase.
Putin told Assad he hoped progress on the military front would be followed by moves toward a political solution in Syria, bolstering Western hopes Moscow will use its increased influence to cajole Assad into talking to his opponents.
The United States took note of a meeting between Assad and Putin but was not surprised by the visit, the State Department said.
The White House also slammed Russia for its "red carpet" treatment of Assad, saying it was at "odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria."
Moscow, which feels shut out by the West because of the Ukraine crisis, is keen to show its detractors it is pursuing military and diplomatic tracks simultaneously, and Putin spoke to several regional leaders after meeting Assad.
He talked by phone to the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the presidents of Egypt and Turkey to brief them on the details of Assad's visit.
Assad's confidence is likely to be boosted by his Moscow visit, which comes as his forces wage counter offensives in western Syria against insurgents backed by Assad's foreign opponents, as well as Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS] militants.
Russian officials have repeatedly said they have no special loyalty for the Syrian leader, but his audience with Putin will be seen in the West as yet another sign the Kremlin wants Assad to be part of any political solution, at least initially.
The visit also suggests that Russia, and not longtime ally Iran, has now emerged as Assad's most important foreign friend.
Iran's deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that Iran would not work to keep Assad in power "forever," but that his role in any political process "will be important."
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian spoke to The Guardian newspaper during the first visit by an Iranian delegation to Britain since the two countries reopened their embassies in London and Tehran.
Boosting Putin's popularity
|How Assad got to and back from Moscow remains a mystery, but publicly available flight tracking data suggested his hosts may have arranged a transport for him|
Russian state television made the meeting between Putin and Assad its top news item.
The Kommersant daily cited unidentified sources as saying meetings between the two delegations had lasted over three hours.
The Syrian presidency's Twitter account said Assad and Putin held three rounds of talks - one of them a closed meeting and the other two including Russia's foreign and defence ministers.
The Kremlin has been trying to get the United States to embark on serious talks with Moscow over Syria. So far, it has only succeeded in clinching a technical deal with Washington about the safety of both countries' air forces in Syria.
Moscow will likely use Assad's visit to bolster its domestic narrative that its air campaign is just and effective, and to underline its assertion that its actions show it has shaken off the Ukraine crisis to become a serious global player.
Assad, who looked relaxed, praised Moscow's political approach to the Syrian crisis which he said had ensured it had not followed "a more tragic scenario." Ultimately, he said, the resolution to the crisis was a political one.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said Russia's air support had helped the Syrian army move from defence to attack, saying Moscow would continue to provide military support.
Putin said Russian Islamist militants fighting Assad's forces posed a threat to its own security. "Unfortunately on Syrian territory there are about 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union - at a minimum - fighting government forces with weapons in their hands," he said.
"We, it goes without saying, cannot allow them to turn up on Russian territory after they have received battlefield experience and undergone ideological instruction."
Positive developments on the military front in Syria would provide a basis for a long-term political solution, involving all political forces as well as ethnic and religious groups, Putin said.
How Assad got to and back from Moscow remains a mystery, but publicly available flight tracking data suggested Assad's hosts may have arranged a transport for him.
It showed an IL-76MD Russian military cargo plane flew from Syria to Moscow's Chkalovsky military airfield Tuesday, and that an IL-62M plane from Russia's presidential fleet flew to Latakia, a government controlled Syrian province, that same evening.
Syrian opposition reacts
Commenting on Assad's visit, Secretary-General of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Yahya Maktabi said control of the regime in Syria has now practically gone from Iran's hand to Russia's hand.
Speaking to al-Araby al-Jadeed's Arabic service, Maktabi said: "Russia is now an occupation force. It falsely claims to be fighting IS but its bombardment is focusing on the battalions of the Free Syrian Army."
Nagham Ghadiri, deputy head of the SNC, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the meeting between Assad and Putin, far from being a step towards a political settlement, represents insistence on the military solution.
She said: "Russia's claims about a political solution sidestep the Geneva Communique, by replacing it with staged elections that would shore up the regime, and sham presidential elections that would return Assad."
For his part, Hassan Abdul-Azim, an opposition figure close to Russia, told al-Araby al-Jadeed: "We cannot yet determine the implications of the visit."
"The coming period will determine whether it will produce developments on the political track," he added, "or whether it will be confined to military cooperation, which will be unproductive as long as it is not coupled with a political track that would implement Geneva 1 and help Syria transition to democracy."