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World

Russia Hosts Leaders Of Turkey And Iran For Meeting On Syria

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump had a long phone call with Vladimir Putin yesterday, and they talked mostly about some of the world's most complicated global security issues. Here's the president as he was boarding his helicopter yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a great call with President Putin. We're talking about peace in Syria - very important. We're talking about North Korea. We had a call that lasted almost an hour and a half.

MARTIN: Syria was at the top of the agenda because Vladimir Putin is hosting a summit with the presidents of Iran and Turkey today to talk about the future of Syria after the long civil war there. We go now to our Moscow correspondent, Lucian Kim.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So a summit on the future of Syria happening in Moscow - does that mean the civil war is coming to an end in Syria?

KIM: Well, the idea from the Kremlin's perspective is, we've helped the Assad regime regain control over most of the country, and now the Syrian opposition just doesn't have a choice but to negotiate. I think Putin very much would like to declare mission accomplished as far as Russia's military involvement is concerned. He wants to host the so-called congress of national dialogue of - for Syrians here in Russia. But, you know, the dividing lines are still really deep after so much bloodshed, and ISIS is also still not completely defeated.

MARTIN: So Vladimir Putin clearly feels like he's the one to steer Syria's future. I mean, why is this happening in Moscow - this summit?

KIM: Well, Russia is playing a central role now in Syria's civil war. Two years ago, that military intervention began to help the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, and the Russians have been very active. Of course, Iran and Turkey have also been deeply involved in the conflict, but Putin has really sort of become the driving force. I mean, earlier this year, he got Russia and Turkey - sorry, he got Turkey and Iran to co-sponsor Syrian peace talks. And the summit that we're expecting today is just the latest initiative of that partnership.

MARTIN: What's in it for Vladimir Putin? What does he get out of this?

KIM: Well, I mean, I think you could call Syria the most important foreign policy priority for Putin. What's a little bit confusing is that it's actually all about America, or at least getting America's attention. I think it's useful to look back a couple of years. Three years ago, Russia was very isolated internationally after annexing Crimea, and getting involved in Syria kind of gave Putin an opening to get back on that world stage.

And now he's positioning himself as the Middle East power broker, which is a role, of course, that the U.S. traditionally has played. Yesterday, after that phone call with Trump, he also called the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And I don't think there's any world leader other than Putin who has a direct line to all the major countries in the region.

MARTIN: So what does that mean for the U.S.? You say that Russia is now filling this leadership hole, is steering conversations that America used to lead. What is it - what does this mean that the conversation about Syria is happening without American input?

KIM: Well, of course, the U.S. is still deeply involved in the Middle East. But there's, you know, the general impression in many parts of the world that America is either pursuing contradictory goals or getting distracted or becoming entangled with some kind of local groups on the ground, while Putin is really projecting this image of decisive action.

I think it's just really important also to remember that the Obama administration, although it had quite poor relations with Russia - Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, were meeting constantly to find a solution for Syria. And today, we just don't see that level of U.S. diplomatic activity in the region.

MARTIN: NPR's Lucian Kim reporting from Moscow this morning. Thanks, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.