Russian troops stationed in Syria will start withdrawing following an announcement from President Vladimir Putin that their work in the country is largely done.
Putin paid a surprise visit to the Hmeymim air base in Syria on Monday to share the good news with Russian forces and to speak with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The visit comes just two weeks after Putin met with Assad in Sochi.
“In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” Putin told Russian troops.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war began in September 2015 and consisted mostly of airstrikes. These efforts played a crucial role in tilting the balance of power back in Assad’s favor. Russia has consistently denied attacking anyone but ISIS in Syria, but several sources insist Russian airstrikes targeted rebel fighters and civilians.
The Russian President made it clear that while a “significant part” of the Russian force will be leaving Syria, Moscow will maintain a permanent military presence that will be strong enough to destroy any comeback from ISIS.
Now that ISIS has been defeated in Syria (and Iraq), Putin wants to help Assad broker a peace deal. “The conditions for a political solution under the auspices of the United Nations have been created. The Motherland awaits you,” said Putin.
From Syria, Putin flew to Egypt to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, where he announced that direct flights between the two countries would resume. Flights had been suspended for more than two years following an incident in 2015 when a Russian passenger jet was shot down as it flew from Egypt to Russia. All 224 passengers died.
Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday night.
“Putin is keen to leverage the heightened Middle East influence that Syria has given him to cast himself as a leader who can do diplomacy as well as military force,” reports Reuters.
The White House was careful to take Putin’s announcement with a grain of salt. “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions and do not affect US priorities in Syria,” said the Pentagon.
Putin made a similar statement about withdrawing troops in 2016, but Russian military operations continued.
Others are concerned the big announcement is more about Russian politics than anything else. Putin’s declaration of victory in Syria comes less than a week after he announced he would be standing for re-election in March. The win in Syria will likely appeal to the patriotism of Russian voters, who are expected to elect Putin by a comfortable margin.
“The most significant contribution Russia can make to advancing peace in Syria is to pressure the Assad regime to engage seriously in Geneva [peace talks]. Absent that, the suspicion will be that this announcement may have more to do with Russian politics than the Syrian situation,” said a European diplomat who declined to be named.