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Shoigu to Damascus with Messages from Moscow | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Head of Syrian Regime Bashar Assad shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, June 18, 2016. AP

Moscow-Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu’s unplanned visit to Syria on Saturday revealed the priorities of Russian policy in Syria.

Shoigu inspected Hmeimim airbase then headed to Damascus to meet the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad.

Defense Ministry Spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement “the defense minister ordered the commanders of the air base to boost comprehensive support to the locals, especially in the areas blocked by terrorists.”

He added: “Shoigu has also instructed the head of the Russian center to enhance talks with heads of local administrations and commanders of armed groups in order to call on them to join the reconciliation process and the cessation of hostilities.”

After inspecting Hmeimim’s airbase, Shoigu held talks with the head of the Syrian regime, who was surprised by the visit and started the meeting by saying “I did not know that you will come here in person.”

Shoigu met with the Syrian leader upon the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

“Issues concerning military cooperation between the two countries’ defense ministries, as well as certain aspects of cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups that are active on Syrian territory, were discussed at the meeting,” Konashenkov said.

Sources hinted the response Shoigu delivered on the “Tehran meeting” was neither suitable for Damascus nor for Tehran, especially regarding their request from Russia to intensify its military operations in Aleppo’s countryside and coordinate with Iranian forces and militias fighting there.

Regarding this matter, the sources noted that Russia is exerting efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria and resuming political negotiations. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed in his speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday.

Putin said that maintaining Syria’s integrity must be the top priority and warned that the disintegration of the Middle Eastern country would be a “destabilizing factor not only for the region, but for the whole world.”

“We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict,” the Russian president said, adding that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once this trust is finally built.

A political process is the only way to reach peace, Putin stated.

“If we want to promote the principle of democracy, let’s do so with democratic instruments,” Putin told the forum, while cautioning it will be a “complicated process that will take time.”