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Syria's President Meets With Putin

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in other news, Syria's president was in Moscow yesterday for talks with President Putin. As far as we know, it is the first time Bashar al-Assad has been outside his country since the Civil War erupted four years ago. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow. Good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Surprise visit - what did the two leaders have to say?

FLINTOFF: Well, what they had to say before the meeting was pretty standard stuff. Putin praised Assad for what he described as a fight against international terrorism. Assad thanked Putin for Russia's military help. But I think the most important thing about this meeting is that it seems to send the message that Assad is confident enough to leave his country. He's not afraid that he'll be deposed by enemies within his own regime. It suggests that Assad and his government are already safer, you know, now that the Russians have begun their air campaign. And also that Russian support for Assad is going to stay strong.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is other news in Syria this morning. One news item says that three Russians were killed fighting there yesterday. What do you know about that?

FLINTOFF: Well, the Russian embassy in Damascus has already denied that any Russians were killed, either Russian servicemen or volunteer fighters. And they went so far as to suggest that this was disinformation from a human rights group that's based in London. You know, it's recently become illegal in Russia to report on deaths of Russian servicemen, so I think it's unlikely we'll get any clear answers from the Russian side.

MONTAGNE: Obviously, Putin does not want to have his countrymen think that they are entering into a very deep war here.

FLINTOFF: Exactly right.

MONTAGNE: We're also seeing reports from Iraq that the coalition government there has asked the prime minister to request Russian airstrikes in Iraq as well. That's something the U.S. would oppose, but what about Russia?

FLINTOFF: Russia would like nothing better, Renee. It could be a big embarrassment for the United States if U.S. allies in Iraq asked for Russian help because that would suggest that the American airstrikes there have basically failed. The top U.S. general, Joseph Dunford, was in Baghdad yesterday, and he said he got an agreement from the government that it would not ask for Russian airstrikes in Iraq. From Russia's point of view, that's probably a win-win because Russia's military contingent in Syria's still quite small and it would be stretched pretty thin if it had to launch attacks on ISIS in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And, Corey, we've also seen that the U.S. and Russia have signed off on flight rules that are designed to keep the two countries from crashing into each other in the skies over Syria. How significant is that?

FLINTOFF: Well, the Russians are saying it's very important because it shows that these two sides can cooperate to fight terrorism, but U.S. officials have said all along that Russia's military campaign is doing more harm than good in Syria. And they don't want this to be seen as a step toward forming a coalition with Russia. They're saying it's a very narrow agreement, just enough to keep those planes apart.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's pretty important, though, right?

FLINTOFF: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, NPR's Corey Flintoff, speaking to us from Moscow. Thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.