Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his air and cruise-missile strikes on terror targets in Syria as two Saudi Arabian officials softened their government’s position on the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Putin discussed his Syria campaign on Sunday with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, who signaled a willingness to let al-Assad remain in power longer, while the foreign ministers of both nations also met to consider the situation in Syria. Putin’s bombing campaign to support his ally Assad took the U.S. and NATO by surprise and overshadowed a flurry of diplomacy over how to tackle the conflict.

As Russia builds up its military presence in Assad’s stronghold on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama dismissed any notion that his leadership on the world stage was being challenged. Now Russia is leading the diplomatic charge, with Putin in bilateral meetings with Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed, who were in Sochi in southern Russia, site of a Formula 1 auto race. Putin again called for a political resolution emanating from Assad’s government. CONTINUE