The Wall Street Journal - Putin Declares Victory in Surprise Stopover in Syrianopaywall
12 декабря 2017 г. Nathan Hodge.
Visit marks a step in Russia’s effort to shape outcomes once the conflict ends.
MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to a military air base in Syria, in an effort to showcase his country’s rising clout in the Middle East months ahead of a presidential election.
Mr. Putin landed Monday at Hmeimim air base, a military outpost in Syria’s Latakia province that has been the main launching point for Russian warplanes backing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In remarks to Russian troops, he claimed victory, saying Russian forces and their allies had “defeated the most battle-ready grouping of international terrorists” opposing Mr. Assad.
The Russian president said he was ordering the bulk of the Russian military contingent in Syria to begin withdrawing, but he added that Moscow would maintain two permanent bases in Syria—the Hmeimim air base and a naval station in Tartus.
“If the terrorists raise their heads again, we will strike them with blows, the likes of which they have never seen,” Mr. Putin said.
U.S. military officials responded to Mr. Putin’s comments with skepticism, noting Russia has said before that it would reduce its forces in Syria.
“Russian comments about the removal of their forces do not often correspondent with actual troop reductions, and they don’t impact our—U.S.—priorities in Syria,” Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday.
Monday’s visit comes amid a play by Mr. Putin to shape post-conflict outcomes in Syria, as Islamic State is ousted from its final strongholds.
Late last month,, Mr. Putin hosted heads of state from Iran and Turkey to align positions ahead of the start of Syria peace talks in Geneva. In October, the Kremlin leader hosted Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Moscow, a historic tripthat advertised Russia’s burgeoning influence in the region.
The Russian government intervened directly on the side of Mr. Assad in the fall of 2015, reversing the course of the war and rescuing the Damascus government from near-defeat. Mr. Putin billed military intervention as a campaign against extremist groups such as Islamic State, but U.S. officials and international observers said his warplanes often targeted opposition rebel groups, some of which have been supported by the U.S. and its allies.
Russian observers say Moscow’s robust support for Damascus has come at a time when the Trump administration is recalibrating its policy in the Middle East, sometimes causing new friction with longstanding allies such as Saudi Arabia.
“Russia is making friends across the region; we’ve won their respect,” said Ivan Konovalov, a defense analyst.
The U.S. has approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, and Pentagon officials have spoken of an open-ended military commitment there to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State or other terrorist groups. Russian officials have condemned the presence of U.S. forces in Syria after the defeat of Islamic State.
This isn’t the first time Mr. Putin has ordered a military withdrawal from Syria: In March 2016, he unexpectedly ordered his country’s armed forces to start withdrawing from Syria as peace talks began. And earlier this year, Russia’s top general said Russian forces would draw down in Syria, starting with a withdrawal of its warships from the eastern Mediterranean.
But Mr. Putin’s visit to Syria comes three months ahead of Russia’s presidential elections scheduled for mid-March, and days ahead of a nationally televised news conference, a major annual event. Mr. Putin is widely expected to win a fourth term, and Monday’s visit has been portrayed on state-dominated airwaves as a major foreign-policy victory.
Speaking on the national Rossiya 24 channel, top Russian war correspondent Evgeny Poddubnyy described the Russian intervention as a successful campaign.
“Three years ago, no one could have believed in a victory over ISIS,” he said, referring to Islamic State.
Despite Monday’s announcement of a Russian withdrawal, rebel commanders and pro-regime media reported that Russian warplanes remained heavily involved in backing the ground advance by the Syrian army and allied Shiite militias toward northwest Idlib province. Idlib, along with small pockets of neighboring provinces, is one of the opposition’s last strongholds.
The Kremlin leader evidently visited under heavy secrecy. Russian state television broadcast images of Mr. Putin’s Tupolev Tu-214 presidential plane on the tarmac in Hmeimim only after the Kremlin announced that he had arrived in Cairo on an official visit to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the next leg of a Middle East trip.
During the visit, Mr. Assad thanked Mr. Putin for what he called Russia’s effective assistance in fighting terrorism, adding that the Syrian people wouldn’t forget it, Syrian state media said. The Syrian regime refers to much of the opposition as terrorists.
“The conflict is still ongoing even if some wish to pretend it’s over,” European Union foreign-affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a news conference Monday. “We know very well that on the ground, fighting is still going on, civilians are still attacked and we see that with our humanitarian support every single day inside Syria.”
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