Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow on Tuesday evening to hold talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin made public a video of the meeting, showing both leaders smiling broadly. With it being viewed as a "surprise" designed by Putin, the trip caused quite a stir in the West.
Syria was plunged into civil war in 2011. At that time, many people believed the Assad regime couldn't last long under tough Western demands for Assad to step down. However, Assad has made his way based on both public and Russian support, and seemingly passed the "turning point." This is his first overseas trip since the outbreak of the civil war. It was widely interpreted as a sign of an upturn in the Syrian situation and his confidence of bringing the situation under control.
Since late September, the Russian air force has launched large-scale operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The Syrian situation has been reversed. The West is not happy about that, but they are unable to pick holes in Russia.
Through Assad's surprise visit to Moscow, Putin and Assad displayed their "victors' smiles" to the whole world, which sent varied messages.
The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Slobodan Milosevic all ended in tragedy because they were against the West or refused to accept a Western ultimatum. But Assad and his regime are an exception. Besides the support of the Syrian people, having Moscow's endorsement is a critical factor. Assad has tightly clung to Putin at a time of crisis, linking the fate of his regime and his own to Moscow. So far Assad seems to have made the right choice.
Putin in recent years has engaged in two "battles" against the West. He took the initiative in the stalemated Ukraine crisis despite Western sanctions, which have worsened the Russian economy. In regard to the Syrian issue, Putin has scored almost full marks so far. However, it remains to be seen how the West will react next and whether Russia can afford a long-lasting confrontation.
The West has no reason to oppose Russia's operations against the IS or to prevent Moscow aiding the Assad regime, for the latter still maintains its legitimacy in the UN. Unless the West launches direct military attacks against the Assad regime, it's hard to reverse the situation. However, a legitimate operation needs the authorization of the UN.
Whether Moscow can help the Assad regime get out of crisis and win back recognition from the international community is a test for Russia. Putin will not easily give up Russia's protection of Syria, since the whole country considers it a race that Russia must not lose.