Bashar al-Assad has left his country's borders for just the second time since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, venturing to Russia once again for what the AP describes as a surprise three-hour visit that went unannounced until Tuesday morning. Assad met with President Vladimir Putin on Monday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, in what was presented as a bit of a victory lap. "I would like to introduce you to people who played a key role in saving Syria," Putin said to Assad in the presence of Russian generals; the BBC reports Russia has for two years been running an air campaign in support of Assad. At this point the Syrian government controls more than 50% of the country (earlier this year it was 19%), and as the AP puts it, "no force on the ground is capable of driving Assad out at this stage."
As such, Putin suggested Russia would be backing out, saying, "Regarding our joint operation to fight terrorists in Syria, this military operation is indeed coming to an end." The AP notes Putin has made such pronouncements before and not followed through. The meeting preceded a summit in the same location with the heads of Syrian allies Russia and Iran, as well as Turkey, which has backed the rebels. CNN reports Putin said he would be calling President Trump on Tuesday to fill him in on the discussion. The AP notes that the eighth round of UN-sponsored peace talks between Syria and the opposition are slated to begin in Geneva, but "no negotiated resolution is likely to lead to Assad's ouster." Its piece examines how Assad has managed to hang on to control for six years, and why that's likely to continue to be the case. More here.