ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Russia and the United States have agreed to discuss ways of ending the war in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Vienna on Friday. They'll be joined by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. There's been a lot of diplomatic activity ahead of the meeting. Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke by phone today with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. And last night, Putin hosted a surprise visit from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russian officials wouldn't say what was discussed in last night's long meeting between Assad and Putin. But before the doors were closed, both men seemed to be trying to make the most of the symbolism of the meeting. Putin said the two nations want to work not only on their military operations but on the quest for a political solution.
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VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We will do this, of course, in close contact with the other global powers and with the countries in the region that want to see a peaceful settlement to this conflict.
FLINTOFF: That remark was in keeping with Putin's insistence that Russia is a global power whose influence must be considered. Political analyst Georgy Mirsky says for Assad, the visit was a chance to project confidence and to make it clear that he has Putin's strong support.
GEORGY MIRSKY: Of course, it is a PR action and a demonstrative action to show the whole world that Russia and Syria are together. They are allies.
FLINTOFF: Mirsky says neither man can abandon the alliance. He says Assad can't risk stepping down because that might mean the end of power for his own Alawite religious minority. And, he says, Putin can't waver in his support for Assad because it might appear that he was backing down in a confrontation with the West. Even so, Mirsky says Putin very likely asked Assad some pointed questions.
MIRSKY: What does it mean, he could ask. Is it an open-ended operation? Do you think that we Russians will be bombing for half a year or for a year or for two years out there? Of course not.
FLINTOFF: And, Mirsky says, Putin may have told Assad that it's time to think about carving out an enclave that his army can defend after the Russian operation is over. He thinks the significance of Putin's conference with Assad might emerge after Friday's meeting in Vienna. There, Russia will have to defend Assad before some of his most steadfast enemies, including the United States. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.