By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin used a rare visit to Moscow by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to talk up the Kremlin's potential to help broker a political settlement to the crisis as he tried to show the West Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.
Assad flew to Moscow on Tuesday evening to thank Putin personally for his military support, in a surprise visit that Russian state media cast as a diplomatic coup.
It was Assad's first foreign visit since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, and came three weeks after Russia launched a campaign of air strikes against Islamist militants and rebels in Syria that has bolstered Assad's forces.
The Kremlin, which said it had invited Assad to visit Moscow, kept the visit quiet until Wednesday morning.
Putin told Assad he hoped progress on the military front would be followed by moves towards a political solution in Syria, bolstering Western hopes Moscow will use its increased influence to cajole Assad into talking to his opponents.
Moscow, which feels shut out by the West because of the Ukraine crisis, is keen to show its detractors it is pursuing military and diplomatic tracks simultaneously, and Putin spoke to several regional leaders after meeting Assad.
He talked by telephone to the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the presidents of Egypt and Turkey to brief them on the details of Assad's visit.
Assad's confidence is likely to be boosted by his Moscow visit, which comes as his forces wage counter offensives in western Syria against insurgents backed by Assad's foreign opponents, as well as Islamic State militants.
"First of all I wanted to express my huge gratitude to the whole leadership of the Russian Federation for the help they are giving Syria," Assad told Putin.
"If it was not for your actions and your decisions the terrorism which is spreading in the region would have swallowed up a much greater area."
Russian officials have repeatedly said they have no special loyalty for the Syrian leader, but his audience with Putin will be seen in the West as yet another sign the Kremlin wants Assad to be part of any political solution, at least initially.
The visit also suggests that Russia, and not longtime ally Iran, has now emerged as Assad's most important foreign friend.
Russian state TV made the meeting its top news item, showing Assad, dressed in a dark blue suit, talking to Putin, together with the Russian foreign and defense ministers.
The Kommersant daily cited unnamed sources saying meetings between the two delegations had lasted over three hours. The Syrian presidency Twitter account said Assad and Putin held three rounds of talks - one of them a closed meeting and the other two including Russia's foreign and defense ministers.
The Kremlin has cast its intervention in Syria, its biggest in the Middle East since the 1991 Soviet collapse, as a common sense move designed to roll back international terrorism in the face of what it says is ineffective action from Washington.
It has been trying to get the United States to embark on a serious dialogue with Moscow over Syria. So far, it has only succeeded in clinching a technical deal with Washington about the safety of both countries' air forces in Syria.
Moscow is likely to use Assad's visit to buttress its domestic narrative that its air campaign is just and effective and to underline its assertion that its actions show it has shaken off the Ukraine crisis to become a serious global player.
Russia has a combined force of around 50 jets and helicopters in Latakia protected by Russian marines. It also has military trainers and advisers working with the Syrian army.
Russia's air force says it has flown over 700 sorties against more than 690 targets in Syria since Sept. 30.
Assad, who looked relaxed, praised Moscow's political approach to the Syrian crisis which he said had ensured it had not followed "a more tragic scenario." Ultimately, he said, the resolution to the crisis was a political one.
"Terrorism is a real obstacle to a political solution," said Assad. "And of course the whole (Syrian) people want to take part in deciding the fate of their state, and not just the leadership."
Putin said Russia was ready to help find a political solution and hailed the Syrian people for standing up to militants "almost on their own",
Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister, said Russia's air support had helped the Syrian army move from defense to attack, saying Moscow would continue to provide military support.
Putin said Russia Islamist militants fighting Assad's forces posed to its own security. "Unfortunately on Syrian territory there are about 4,000 people from the former Soviet Union - at a minimum - fighting government forces with weapons in their hands," he said.
"We, it goes without saying, can not allow them to turn up on Russian territory after they have received battlefield experience and undergone ideological instruction."
Positive developments on the military front in Syria would provide a basis for a long-term political solution, involving all political forces, ethnic and religious groups, said Putin.
"We are ready to make our contribution not only in the course of military actions in the fight against terrorism, but during the political process," he said, according to the transcript released by the Kremlin.
When asked whether Assad's own political future had been discussed, Putin's spokesman declined to comment.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Russia to stop bombing targets in Syria.
"If Russia is really serious about claiming to contribute to the stabilization of Syria, then that can't succeed if thousands more people are forced to flee by military offensives," he said.
A senior member of the Syrian National Coalition accused Russia of colonial behavior.
"They are trying to deliver a message to international and regional powers that anyone who wants to reach a political solution in Syria must come to Russia," Monzer Akbik of the Western-backed opposition group, told Reuters.
How Assad got to and back from Moscow remains a mystery, but publicly available flight tracking data suggested Assad's hosts may have laid on transport for him.
It showed an IL-76MD Russian military cargo plane flew from Syria to Moscow's Chkalovsky military airfield on Tuesday, and that an IL-62M plane from Russia's presidential fleet flew to Latakia, a government controlled Syrian province, that same evening.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Ekaterina Golubkova and Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Dasha Afanasieva in Turkey; Editing by Christian Lowe and Dominic Evans)