BEIRUT – What's in a hug?
Syrian President Bashar Assad, arriving to the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday, warmly embraced his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, almost resting his head on the Russian president's shoulder.
That photograph, distributed to the media by Moscow, tells the story in a nutshell of Russia's two-year military campaign in Syria that has largely contributed to Assad's survival in power.
There seems to be real gratitude in the moment.
Later, Assad thanked Putin and Russia's top brass for their "sacrifices" and efforts made to "save our country."
He may have well said thank you for saving me — or at least my job.
Without Russia's support and heavy airpower, Assad would still be battling for political survival, or would have been possibly deposed.
When Assad last visited Russia in October 2015, some observers remarked that Putin appeared cold to the Syrian leader. It was early in the Russian military campaign, only one month in.
Many among Assad's opposition will say the Russian intervention preserved Assad's rule in Syria while thousands more were killed and tens of thousands more displaced in the civil war, now in its seventh year.
Some also claim that the Russian involvement may have helped put any Assad accountability for human rights abuses out of reach.
It was a huge gamble by Putin, but one that appears to have paid off, at least for the two of them.
Moscow has a seemingly irreversible footprint in the Middle East again, and Assad appears to have survived the war.