He was immaculately dressed in a dark grey suit. He walked with a spring in his step and a smug smile on his face. After six years of waging war, Bashar al-Assad was understandably gleeful as he arrived in Sochi to meet his patron, Vladimir Putin. Thankful that the Russian leader had dispatched his air force two years ago to rescue him, the Syrian strongman handed Mr Putin a painting as a gift.
The Sochi meeting last week marked necessary choreography as Mr Putin tries to bring the curtain down on his Syrian adventure. Now that he has essentially won the war for Mr Assad, he’s looking for an orderly exit.
For the moment, Mr Putin can claim to have achieved his objectives. He has contributed to defeating Isis, pushed back rebels threatening Mr Assad’s rule and reinforced a Russian military foothold in the Mediterranean. He’s also put himself back on the Middle Eastern map: officials across the region tell me that even rulers in the region who disagree with Mr Putin’s Syria policy take the time to listen to him.
The big question, however, is whether he can untangle himself from Syria without being dragged back in. If his intention was, as I’ve heard several of his loyalists say, to teach western rivals that interventions must be about restoring order rather than spreading chaos, he has to ensure that order prevails.
Does that mean a Putin peace for Syria? Not necessarily. Despite the defeat of Isis and revived UN-sponsored talks, a political settlement is a long way off. Rebel groups are no longer as insistent on Mr Assad’s removal (and how could they be when they have lost?).
But a regime-imposed reconciliation over a country it turned to rubble and a society it devastated with killings and starvation will not amount to peace.
A more likely outcome is a well-honed Russian strategy — the freezing of the Syrian conflict. Two days after Mr Putin’s meeting with Mr Assad, the Russian leader held a summit in Sochi with the presidents of Turkey and Iran. Ankara has been a big supporter of the rebels, Tehran the main power behind the Assad regime and supplier of the ground militias that fought for Mr Assad.
The three states have set up so-called de-escalation zones, where they negotiate and monitor local ceasefires. The fighting has decreased in some of these zones but not in others, as evidenced by this week’s indiscriminate bombing by the regime of Ghouta, near Damascus.
The zones, although in mostly small pockets of territory, are reinforcing a de facto soft partition of Syria. Though all three powers profess commitment to the territorial integrity of Syria, and would genuinely prefer such an outcome, soft partition is an emerging fact on the ground.
Control over territory is divided between Shia militias and regime forces, the Turkish army, Kurdish militias and rebel groups. A de-escalation zone in southern Syria is being negotiated with Jordan, which would also police it.
Partition is a loaded word. For too long, diplomats have avoided mention of it because Syrians themselves are loath to contemplate it. For outsiders, too, any hint of giving up on a unified Syria can be treacherous. If Syria cannot be put back together again, the unity of Iraq and Lebanon, countries with similarly complex ethnic and religious make-ups, could be in jeopardy, too.
But the taboo has now been broken as the reality of a soft partition takes hold. So much so that Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, shuttles between world capitals with a multicoloured map in his inside pocket that illustrates the splits. Mr de Mistura waves his map as a warning that without political resolution, soft partition can turn into a permanent splintering of the Syrian state. It could also spur new conflicts, between Syrian regime allies and Kurdish militias, between Turkish troops and Kurds.
Neither outcome would allow Mr Putin to claim that the Syrian state has prevailed. In the short term he may well disengage and leave the uncertain future of Syria in the hands of the UN. But when he later tries to lecture the west, he may find that the state he went to war to save no longer exists.
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