Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 15, 2023. Image Credit: AP

MOSCOW: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said on Thursday that he would welcome any Russian proposals to set up new military bases and boost troop numbers in the Middle Eastern country, suggesting Russia’s military presence there should become permanent.

When Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, it helped tip the balance in Assad’s favour, ensuring the Syrian leader’s survival despite Western demands that he be toppled.

Assad, who met President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday, has supported Russia’s war in Ukraine and told Russia’s state news agency RIA that Damascus recognises the territories claimed by Russia in Ukraine.

Syria, Assad said, would welcome any Russian proposals to set up new military bases and boost Russian troop numbers - and said they need not be temporary.

“We think that expanding the Russian presence in Syria is a good thing,” Assad told RIA in an interview.

“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.”

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 Middle Eastern country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies.

He has stitched much of his state back together with the help of Russia and Iran, aided by the fact that his allies were always more committed to his survival than his enemies were to his defeat.

Russia thanked

Alongside the Hmeimim air base, from which Russia launches air strikes in support of 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 Daesh militants in 2017.

In Moscow, Assad thanked Putin for the help Russia had given to Syria after a devastating earthquake and praised the Kremlin chief for his support of Syrian unity.

Syria stood beside Russia on the issue of Ukraine, Assad said.

“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,” Assad told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript.

Syria recognises the territories of Ukraine which Russia has seized as Russian, Assad said.

“I say that these are Russian territories, and even if the war had not happened, these are historically Russian territories,” Assad told RIA.

Russia has claimed around 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.

Assad said Russia and Syria planned to sign an agreement on economic cooperation in the coming weeks.