Author: Henry Meyer, Stepan Kravchenko
Posted on: Bloomberg| December 11th, 2017
President Vladimir Putin flew to Russia’s airbase in Syria and declared “victory” in its two-year military campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, as he issued an order to begin withdrawing forces from the war-torn country.
Putin’s unannounced stop, where he was greeted by Assad, began a whirlwind day of Middle East diplomacy on Monday that includes talks with Egyptian and Turkish leaders as he asserts Russia’s strengthened diplomatic position in the region, amid tensions between the U.S. and many of its traditional allies.
“Our armed forces and military-industrial enterprises have demonstrated the growing might of Russia’s army and navy,” Putin told troops at the Khmeimim airbase, according to a Kremlin statement. Russia’s actions helped “the people of Syria to preserve their statehood,” he said.
Putin’s triumphant appearance in Syria underlines his success in sidelining the U.S. since he ordered Russian forces to intervene in the conflict in September 2015. The U.S. under President Barack Obama pushed for Assad’s removal, while Putin’s willingness to back the Syrian leader with force against rebel groups helped reverse the course of a civil war that’s killed 400,000 people since it erupted in 2011. Amid anger among Arab leaders at U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Putin is pressing his advantage to restore Russia’s Soviet-era leadership in the Middle East.
“Putin’s announcement of Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria marks the victorious end of the military campaign, but not of the Russian military presence and political involvement in the region,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter.
The Russian leader is working with Turkey and Iran to enforce cease-fire zones in Syria as he seeks to revive long-stalled efforts to reach a peace settlement. Putin has reached out to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to persuade opposition groups to join planned Russian-hosted peace talks with Assad. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed in October that “we do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime and the Assad family,” the U.S. is no longer demanding that he step down as a precondition for talks.
Putin said Russia will keep enough forces in Syria to maintain its airbase and a naval port at Tartus. “If the terrorists rear their head again, we’ll strike them in a way they’ve never seen before,” he said, in comments broadcast on Russian state television.
It’s not the first time he’s announced Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. Putin ordered a pullback of forces in March 2016, saying the military campaign had created “conditions for the start” of peace talks, only to resume large-scale operations in support of Syrian troops during the siege of Aleppo.
The visit under tight secrecy to Syria follows Putin’s announcement last week that he’ll seek a fourth term in presidential elections in March, potentially extending his 18-year rule to 2024.
“This is a piece of theater for Putin,” said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow. “It was important for him to make this statement as he heads into the election campaign.”
Putin’s pledge to pull out the troops, which won’t be welcomed by Assad or the Syrian leader’s other main ally, Iran, is “a recognition that military victory, which was pretty easy to achieve, won’t lead by itself to a political solution,” Shumilin said. Russia isn’t even close to securing a peace deal amid continued disagreement with the West and its Arab allies over Assad’s future, he said.