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Putin Calls For Political Deal In Assad Meeting In Sochi

Putin Hosts Assad In Sochi
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeated his call for a negotiated political settlement to end the Syrian conflict during a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Russian city of Sochi.

Putin told Assad at the meeting late on November 20 that the military operation in Syria was "coming to an end," although there was still a "long way to go."

The meeting came as the presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran are scheduled to meet in the Russian Black Sea resort on November 22 to discuss Syria.

UN-sponsored negotiations aimed at fostering a political solution to the six-year Syrian conflict are due to resume in Geneva on November 28.

Russia and Iran have given crucial military and diplomatic backing to Assad's government throughout the war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in 2011.

The war has killed more than 330,000 people, created more than 6 million refugees, and forced some 5 million people to become internally displaced.

Turkey supports rebels who want to oust the Syrian president, while Assad and Putin have long characterized Syrian rebels as terrorists.

"I think now the main thing is to move to political processes, and I am pleased to see your readiness to work with everyone willing to establish peace and find solutions," Putin told Assad in remarks broadcast on Russian television.

Putin said that he expected the United Nations to "actively participate in the [political] process, particularly during its final stage."

Expressing thanks for Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, Assad said, "especially since we’ve attained victory over the terrorists, we want the political process to progress."

The Syrian president refers to the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and most of his other opponents as "terrorists."

"We're counting on Russia's support to ensure the nonintervention of outside players in the political process, so that their role is to support the efforts of the Syrians themselves," he added.

In separate remarks made at a meeting with Czech President Milos Zeman on November 21, Putin said Syrian government forces controlled "more than 98 percent of [the country's] territory."

"Hotbeds of...resistance are still present, but they are rapidly disappearing under the strikes of our...forces and Syrian allies," Putin said.

The Russian president said he intended to talk with U.S. President Donald Trump on November 21.

Putin had said in March 2016 that Russian forces had largely achieved their goals in Syria, although Moscow's military campaign there continued.

Moscow has been accused of killing hundreds of Syrian civilians in air strikes, a claim it denies.

A Kremlin spokesman told the RIA Novosti news agency that Assad was in Russia on November 21 for four hours.

It was the second time Assad has traveled to Russia to meet with Putin in the course of the war.

The first was in October 2015, shortly after Russia launched its air and ground campaign in Syria to beef up Assad's forces.

On November 19, the Iranian, Russian, and Turkish foreign ministers met in southern Turkey to discuss the war in Syria ahead of the Sochi summit.

The November 22 meeting between Putin and his counterparts in Iran and Turkey -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rohani -- will focus on reducing violence in Syria and matters related to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the region, officials said.

Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran are sponsoring separate talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, that focus on battlefield issues, such as the formation of de-escalation zones in key regions of Syria.

Western powers have called for Assad to step down since the war broke out in 2011, and the Syrian president's fate has been a stumbling block in previous peace talks.

Syrian opposition groups are expected to meet in Saudi Arabia on November 23 in an attempt to create a single representative body for the latest round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva next week.

On November 21, Iranian President Hassan Rohani declared the end of Islamic State in an address broadcast live on state TV, after the militants were ousted from strongholds in both Syria and Iraq.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of foreign operations for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), also declared the end of the extremist group in a message sent to the country’s supreme leader that was published on the IRGC-run Sepah news site.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, TASS, and Interfax