WASHINGTON -- Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin of Russia discussed efforts to forge peace in war-torn Syria during an hour-plus phone call Tuesday.
Trump called it a "great call" Tuesday afternoon as he left the White House to spend Thanksgiving in Florida. Noting the call's length, he said he and Putin spoke "very strongly about bringing peace to Syria" and "very strongly about North Korea."
The White House said Iran, North Korea and Ukraine also were on the agenda.
Trump's phone call with the Russian president came a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Putin in Russia to discuss new peace initiatives drafted by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The meeting was unannounced, and the Kremlin did not make it public until Tuesday morning.
Putin hosted Assad at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi ahead of a summit this week with those countries, which have taken an increasingly prominent role in diplomacy with Syria while the United States has put Assad's fate on the back burner. Iran and Russia have been Assad's main backers, while Turkey supports the opposition.
In the phone call with Trump, the Kremlin said Putin briefed his U.S. counterpart about his talks with Assad and plans for a political settlement in Syria. Putin also called for the coordination of anti-terror efforts with the U.S., the Kremlin said, adding that Afghanistan was also discussed.
Trump and Putin spoke informally several times earlier this month when they attended a summit in Vietnam. They agreed on a number of principles for the future of Syria.
Moscow released footage of Assad warmly embracing Putin, and Assad thanking Russia for its military intervention two years ago that he credited with "saving Syria."
Russian officials have said their goal is to ensure Assad's support for a political process to end a conflict that began more than six years ago. But Assad has consistently resisted compromise with his Syrian opponents, and doubts remain about how much Russia is willing, or able, to push him to accept changes.
It was Assad's second known trip abroad since the civil war in his country began in 2011. He visited Moscow in 2015, soon after Russia began its pivotal air campaign in support of his forces. The Sochi stop came as his other main allies, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, declared that they had defeated the Islamic State in its last major Syrian stronghold, Boukamal, near the Iraqi border.
Saying that "the military operation is really coming to an end," Putin told Assad that it was time to work toward a lasting political settlement.
Yet the declarations of military victory may also be premature: The Islamic State militant group has lost much of its territory, but its fighters remain an insurgent threat, and armed opposition groups still hold significant sections of the country.
Parallel Russian- and U.S.-led campaigns against the Islamic State have largely shattered the group's territorial self-declared caliphate. But a solution to the underlying conflict, which began after Assad's forces cracked down on political protests, remained elusive.
Insurgents unaffiliated with the Islamic State still hold patches of territory, besieged and bombarded by government forces, near the Syrian capital, Damascus; in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib; and along the border with Jordan. Additionally, tens of thousands of people are missing, including civilians believed to be detained by the Syrian government. Twelve million Syrians, about half the population, have been driven from their homes.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which tracks war casualties through a database of victims identified by name, said that since March 2011, at least 26,446 children had been killed in the conflict, a vast majority by government forces.
"The main thing is to move to political processes," Putin told Assad, according to Russian state news media. "I am pleased to see your readiness to work with everyone willing to establish peace and find solutions."
Assad, who embraced the Russian leader and shook hands with a row of generals, replied, "We must admit that the operation made it possible to advance the process of political settlement in Syria."
The United States and other international opponents have largely backed off their long-standing demand that Assad step down and have signaled willingness to accept a political transition that left him in power for at least some amount of time. But that remains unacceptable to many rebels and political opposition groups, and Assad has been accused in European courts of presiding over large-scale war crimes.
On Monday, Riad Hijab, who headed the main Western-backed opposition group for the past two years, resigned without giving any explanation.
His Higher Negotiating Committee had been attending the long-stalled talks sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva.
Russian state news media outlets said the Kremlin supported efforts by Saudi Arabia, which hosts the opposition committee, to reorganize the opposition, presumably an effort to recruit a committee that would agree to new parameters. A new round of talks in Geneva is scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Putin then plans to host what he calls a Syrian Peoples' Congress in Sochi on Dec 2. Initial plans for the meeting called for inviting 33 Syrian opposition groups, some tolerated by Damascus, as well as Kurdish groups, a much broader range than those included in the Geneva process. The meeting was postponed once over Turkey's objections to inviting Kurdish groups that it sees as allied with Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Bassem Mroue and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press; by Anne Barnard of The New York Times; and by Henry Meyer, Stepan Kravchenko, Scott Rose, Margaret Talev and Ksenia Galouchko of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 11/22/2017
Print Headline: Trump, Putin discuss Syria in 'great call'