Syria's Bashar Assad visits to Moscow for meeting with Vladimir Putin
President Bashar Assad has travelled to Moscow in his first known trip abroad since war broke out in Syria in 2011, meeting his strongest ally, Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders stressed that military operations in Syria - in which Moscow is the latest and most powerful addition - must lead to a political process.
Russia later announced that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state John Kerry have agreed to meet in Vienna on Friday with their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to discuss the Syria crisis.
The surprise visit on Tuesday reflects renewed confidence from the embattled Syrian president after Russia and Iran, another staunch ally, dramatically escalated their support recently as Moscow began carrying out airstrikes on Syrian insurgents and Tehran sent hundreds of ground forces.
A Syrian official confirmed that Assad had returned to Damascus.
Mr Putin said he had invited Assad, thanking him for "coming to Moscow despite a tragic situation in your country".
Assad shook hands with Mr Putin and other officials. "We thank you for standing by Syria's territorial integrity and its independence," he told the Russian leader.
Syria's conflict began in March 2011 after the government cracked down violently on largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. The protests gradually became an armed insurgency and a civil war that has killed a quarter of a million people over the past five years.
Moscow, a traditional ally of the Assad family, started an air campaign on September 30 against what it said are terrorist groups threatening Syria and Assad's rule. It became the latest international power to deepen its involvement into the increasingly intractable conflict that saw a mushrooming of armed groups, including the militant Islamic State group and al Qaida.
Russia says it is targeting militants. But critics, including the US, say the Moscow military intervention props up Assad and is likely to fan the violence.
Mr Putin said that along with fighting militants, Moscow believes that "a long-term settlement can only be achieved as part of a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups".
"The Syrian people have been putting up a fight against international terrorism effectively on its own for several years, sustaining sizeable losses but it has achieved positive results recently," he said.
A statement posted on the Syrian presidency's official Facebook page said the meetings discussed the continuation of the military operations against terrorism in Syria, calling it the "obstacle" to a political solution.
"Terrorism which we see spreading today could have been more widespread and more harmful if it weren't for your decisions and steps, not only in our region," Assad told Mr Putin in remarks carried by Arab media.
The statement said Assad had three separate meetings in Moscow: talks with Putin and his foreign and defence ministers, a closed-door meeting between the two leaders and a working dinner.
Commentators on Syrian TV hailed the visit as endorsement of Assad's legitimacy, reinforcing the notion that he must be part of a future political solution to the crisis.