Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that he would welcome any Russian proposals to set up new military bases and boost troop numbers in the Middle Eastern country, suggesting Moscow’s military presence there should become permanent.
When Russia intervened in the war in Syria in 2015, four years after protests began in the country, it helped tip the balance in al-Assad’s favour, ensuring the Syrian leader’s survival despite Western demands that he be toppled.
Al-Assad, who met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday, has supported Moscow’s war in Ukraine and told Russia’s state news agency RIA that Damascus recognises the territories claimed by the Kremlin in Ukraine.
“We think that expanding the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing,” al-Assad told RIA in an interview published on Thursday. “Russia’s military presence in any country should not be based on anything temporary.”
“We believe that if Russia has the desire to expand bases or increase their number, it is a technical or logistical issue.”
In a separate interview with the Russian outlet Sputnik, al-Assad also said that he would not meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan until what he termed Ankara’s “illegal occupation” of Syrian land was over.
“This is linked to arriving at a stage Turkey would clearly be ready and without any ambiguity to exit completely from Syrian territory and end its support of terrorism and restore the situation that prevailed before the start of the war on Syria,” al-Assad told Sputnik in an interview relayed by Lebanon’s pro-Iran Hezbollah’s group’s al Manar TV station on Thursday.
“This is the only situation when it would then be possible to have a meeting between me and Erdogan. Aside from that what’s the value of such a meeting and why would we do it if it would not achieve final results for the war in Syria,” he added in the clearest remarks on the recent rapprochement.
The defence ministers of the two countries met late last year for the highest-level talks between the two neighbours, whose governments have been at odds since the war in Syria began.
Al-Assad’s years as president have been defined by the conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before spiralling into a multi-sided conflict that has fractured the country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies.
He has retaken territory from the opposition with the help of Russia and Iran, but all three have been accused by human rights groups of war crimes.
Alongside the Hmeimim airbase, from which Russia launches air attacks in support of al-Assad, Moscow also controls the Tartus naval facility in Syria, its only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, in use since the days of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s defence ministry said in January that Russia and Syria had restored the al-Jarrah military air base in Syria’s north to be jointly used. The small base east of Aleppo was recaptured from ISIL (ISIS) fighters in 2017.
“Because this is my first visit since the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, I would like to repeat the Syrian position in support of this special operation,” al-Assad told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript.
“I say that these are Russian territories, and even if the war had not happened, these are historically Russian territories,” he told RIA.
Russia has claimed about a fifth of Ukraine and says the lands are now part of Russia. Ukraine says it will fight until every last Russian soldier is ejected from Ukraine. The West says the annexation of Ukrainian territory is illegal.