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Putin makes surprise visit to Syria amid US-Iran tensions

Rare visit comes as regional tensions intensify following the targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (Reuters)

Russia's president met his Syrian counterpart on Tuesday during a surprise visit to the Syrian capital, as the prospect of war between Iran and the United States loomed over the region.

President Vladimir Putin met Bashar al-Assad in a rare visit to Damascus where the leaders listened to a military presentation by the commander of Russian forces in Syria.

Russian news agencies reported that the two discussed recent battles and progress that had been made in the Syrian conflict.

Since mid-December, Syrian and Russian forces have intensified their bombing campaign on Idlib, the country's last major opposition stronghold.

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Assad, who has been in power for 19 years, has repeatedly vowed to reclaim the territory, and despite an August ceasefire deal, his forces have pushed forward with their offensive.

"In his conversation with Assad, Putin noted that we can now say with confidence that a huge distance has been travelled towards restoring Syrian statehood and the country's territorial integrity," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

"The Syrian president expressed appreciation for the help of Russia and the Russian military in the fight against terrorism and the restoration of peaceful life in Syria," Peskov added.

Russia intervened in Syria's long-running war four years ago in support of Assad, while neighbouring Turkey and some Gulf states supported rebel groups that rose up against the Syrian president. 

Last month, the New York Times published a report looking into Russian air raids on Idlib, and found that over a 12-hour period, the Russian air force repeatedly bombed hospitals.

The conflict, now approaching its ninth year, has devastated much of the country. An estimated half a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to live as refugees.

Heightened tensions

The visit came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US, following the killing of a top Iranian general in a US air raid in neighbouring Iraq.

Qassem Soleimani's death has sparked a war of words between the arch-foes, with Iran vowing "severe revenge" and US President Donald Trump threatening to hit back hard for any retaliation.

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Soleimani was widely seen as the architect of Iran's support for the Syrian army.

Since the killings, rival Shia political leaders in Iraq have called for US troops to be expelled from the country in an unusual show of unity among factions that have squabbled for months.

Some 5,200 US soldiers are currently stationed across Iraqi bases to support local troops preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group.

They make up the bulk of the broader coalition, invited by the Iraqi government in 2014 to help combat IS.