Putin jokes to Assad he should host Trump; Syrian leader says he’s game
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Putin jokes to Assad he should host Trump; Syrian leader says he’s game

During Russian president’s visit to war-torn country, Assad says that if US leader follows in the footsteps of Saint Paul near Damascus, perhaps he, too, would be ‘normal’

Russian President Vladimir Putin, third right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, visiting an Orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Syrian Presidency via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, third right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, visiting an Orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Syrian Presidency via AP)

In a lighthearted exchange, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently suggested to Syrian President Bashar Assad that he invite US President Donald Trump to visit him in Damascus. The Syrian dictator signaled he was prepared to go ahead with the idea.

In video that emerged of banter between the two leaders during Putin’s visit last week to Syria, the Russian leader is heard saying he would pass on the message to Trump.

The footage was aired Sunday by the Russian-1 channel and showed a conversation between Putin and Assad as they visited the Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Damascus.

Assad mentioned the New Testament story of Paul the Apostle, who became a Christian after experiencing a miracle as he traveled to Damascus where he planned to arrest disciples of Jesus. According to Christian lore, the incident happened on the road where the church is located.

“If Trump arrives along this road, everything will become normal with him too,” Assad jokes to a smiling Putin, according to a translation by the Axios website.

Putin responds that Trump would be keen to visit and if he wasn’t, he’d convince the American leader to come.

“Invite him. He will come,” Putin says in the video. After Assad responds he is prepared to host Trump, Putin says, “I will tell him.”

Putin’s unannounced visit was his second to the country during its ongoing civil war, where Russian troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces since 2015. It came amid a crushing Russian-backed offensive by Syrian forces on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

In addition, tensions between the US and Iran, an ally of Syria and Russia, have skyrocketed after the US killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Iraq, saying he was planning attacks on American interests. Iran responded with a missile attack on two US bases, also in Iraq, causing no injuries.

US President Donald Trump exits Air Force One, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, January 9, 2020. (Kevin Wolf/AP)

Russia joined the Syrian civil war in 2015, when the Syrian military appeared close to collapse. Since then, and largely because of Russia’s blanket air support, the Syrian government has largely won the nearly 9-year civil war militarily, and has retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters.

The United States still has forces deployed in Syria as part of the coalition against the Islamic State jihadist group, some in Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast and others at a base further south near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders.

Trump, along with the Britain and France, also ordered a strike on Syria in 2018 to punish it for a chemical weapons attack on civilian backers of rebels.

A convoy of US troops outside the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, November 2, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Trump abruptly announced in October that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal from Syria, drawing angry rebukes at home and abroad.

The US president later relented in part, saying he would leave some troops in the region to protect valuable oilfields.

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