Assad meets Putin in Sochi on future peace talks

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Russian President Vladimir Putin held a rare meeting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on Thursday and said the "military success" in Syria allowed for a large-scale "political process" leading to the withdrawal of foreign forces and the reconstruction of the country.

He also reportedly hailed progress in fighting "terrorism", which "opens the door to the political process".

The Russian president said: "Given the victories and successes of the Syrian army in the war on terror, in light of the onset of a more active period, and in light of the fact that a more active political process has begun, foreign armed forces will start leaving Syrian territory".

The visit of Assad to Sochi is his second, as last November the president met with Putin in Sochi and hailed the Russian support to Syria.

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Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assad informed Mr Putin of his decision to "send a delegation to the UN" to discuss reforming the country's constitution.

Merkel has already said that the Syrian war has grown into a conflict of "gigantic proportions", and it is impossible to be solved without backing from Russia, Europe and others - but not the US. Though the meeting occurred during the day, according to a video recording, Russian state television broadcast news of the visit only late Thursday, for reasons that were unclear. Putin told Assad that "a lot has been done" at Russia-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Kazakhstan. There would be no regular protocol like guard of honour and so on, sources said.

More than 30,000 people have left northern Homs and southern Hama in the past few days alone, while the majority of the displaced were from the eastern Ghouta suburbs near Damascus.

The two leaders discussed the ongoing clashes in Syria between pro-Assad forces and civilian rebels.