The sudden appearance of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Moscow is a likely sign that Russia is attempting to work out what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

President Vladimir Putin, right, and President of Syria Bashar al-Assad at a meeting at the Kremlin on Oct. 20. Photo: RIA Novosti

In a surprising turn of events, on Oct. 21 Russian media reported that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had visited Moscow just a day earlier. His trip to Moscow is significant in that it was his first foreign travel arrangement since 2011, when the Arab Spring protests broke out in Syria. The destination of the visit is also quite telling since the Syrian President chose to fly to Moscow rather than Tehran, arguably his major foreign backer.

The high-profile meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu evokes two major questions: Why did Russia keep the visit in secret and what was discussed during the meeting?

The first question is relatively easy to answer. One of the reasons why Bashar Al Assad has not left Syria since 2011 is because there has been no guarantee that there would not be a coup during his absence. There has been a lot of speculation about a brewing coup in Damascus and how Assad’s top military officials may abandon him. Four years into the civil war Assad’s position as the president of Syria is holding by a thread not only as a result of rebel pressure but also due to instability within his own ranks as well.

Since the start of Russian military build-up in Syria, plane spotters have been reporting diligently on all flights to and from Syria, paying special attention to routes that connect this country with Russia. Yet even they did not notice any suspicious flights simply because the planes that belong to the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Emergencies land at Syrian airports almost daily. It was one of these planes that Assad used to sneak out of the country unnoticed.

One can only speculate what would have happened if rebel groups had known that the Syrian president was not in Damascus on Oct. 20, but it is almost certain that they would have tried to launch an offensive to take over the country’s capital. In this regard it is probably not a coincidence that Assad’s wife Asma was not in Damascus herself on that day. She was visiting the Syrian Arab Army’s soldiers in Jableh, a town that is only a few miles away from the Russian air base in Latakia.

What the real purpose of the Syrian president’s visit to Moscow was is a more complex and intriguing question. The Russian side was the one who initiated this meeting, which follows from the Kremlin’s statements. Assad’s secretive visit leaves no doubts that this was probably the most important of the hundreds of meetings that the two countries’ officials of different levels have had in the last four years. The last time Assad came to Moscow was over ten years ago.

There are possibly two things that Putin and the Syrian president could have discussed in Moscow. First, it is the interim results of the Russian aerial campaign in Syria. So far these results have been modest and the visit may be an indication that Damascus wants a stronger Russian presence in the country and the deployment of additional jets as well as possibly ground troops.

Second, and this is more likely, the much discussed political transition period in Syria may have been the subject of talks.

In the eyes of the West and Gulf monarchies Assad’s rule remains the main stumbling block that makes political negotiations on Syria impossible. This position has noticeably softened in Washington and in some European countries, yet Saudi Arabia is still adamant. Russian officials and the Syrian president himself have said on many occasions that Assad is ready to step down if that is the will of the Syrian people. Moscow is making attempts to secure a transitional period in Syria where Assad would still be part of the equation, albeit with limited powers.

Assad’s risky trip to Moscow may indicate that a certain framework agreement on Syria has been reached and his personal consent is needed. This may be the case especially taking into account the fact that following the visit, Putin held talks on the phone with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the two biggest enemies of the Syrian president, possibly laying out his Syria plan to them.

The question remains, however, why publicize the meeting with Assad at all, considering that the level of initial secrecy was akin to that of a special military operation. By truly breaking the news of Assad, who became a recluse a long time ago, being welcomed in Moscow by Putin sent a clear signal to the West and the Gulf that Syria’s internationally recognized president cannot be gotten rid of in the same manner as in Libya.

The Russian president agrees in principle that Assad should leave the stage, yet Putin wants Assad to have guarantees and will not allow him to be mistreated by those who want him out of office.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.