DAMASCUS – Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise Christmas Day visit to Syria on Tuesday to meet with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad and several Russian military officials. Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th on the international calendar, which is December 25th on the Julian calendar observed by most Orthodox churches in the world.
Syrian state media and Russia’s Interfax reported on this trip, appearing to verify other reports.
The visit comes at a time of heightened tension in the Middle East following the killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike. It marks Putin’s first trip to Syria since he visited Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Latakia province in 2017.
The two presidents discussed the current military situation in Syria’s regions, the state-run TASS news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russia deployed its air force to Syria in 2015, decisively turning the tide against rebels who were battling to topple Assad in the country’s civil war.
Putin first met with President Assad at the Hmeimim Airbase in southwestern Latakia, where Assad and a color guard entourage greeted the Russian President. This included a ceremonial roll-call of the Russian Armed Forces, then after the two presidents began their formal meeting.
Putin toured the streets of the Syrian capital, and will tour many Syrian regions. President Assad congratulated the Russian officers and soldiers on the occasion of Christmas, and expressed his own and the appreciation of the Syrian people for the sacrifices they made alongside their peers from the heroes of the Syrian Army.
However, this trip fell outside of the standard schedule of executive level meetings. Historically such ad-hoc meetings are called when major world events are unfolding. The rising tensions relating to the US’s occupation of Iraq would appear to qualify.
Earlier today, Putin celebrated the feast of the Nativity of Christ in the Transfiguration Cathedral of the Northern capital.
Putin flew to St. Petersburg to celebrate the patronal feast for the second time in a row in the Transfiguration Cathedral, located in the city center. It was in this temple that Putin was baptized in the Orthodox faith.
Earlier, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin will attend the Christmas service in one of the Russian churches, without specifying which one.
By tradition, the president attends a church on a Christmas night in one of the country’s regions. The main Christmas service in the city on the Neva River takes place in Kazan Cathedral. If in the Transfiguration Cathedral the head of state was accompanied by the governor Alexander Beglov , then in Kazan the speaker of the city parliament Vyacheslav Makarov was present at the service .