In a surprise meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged his support Monday for Syrian President Bashar Assad and called on all Middle East nations to join forces to fight Islamic State militants.

The war in Syria, which began with protests in March 2011, has killed more than 220,000 people. Russia, which has traditionally strong ties to Syria, has been seen as a key to a peaceful solution and has previously rebuffed suggestions that Assad’s resignation could help end the war.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday then was whisked to the Kremlin to meet with Putin.

Russian news agencies quoted Putin as telling the Syrian envoy that Russia’s “policy to support Syria, the Syrian leadership and the Syrian people remains unchanged.”

Putin also urged other Middle East countries to help Syria fight the armed Islamic factions that now control parts of the Syrian capital and large parts of the city’s suburbs.

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