President Vladimir Putin made a triumphant appearance in Syria on December 11, visiting Russia’s airbase in the conflict-torn country to claim “victory” in the campaign to enable “Syrians to preserve their statehood”.
Putin's surprise arrival at the Khmeimim airbase—where he announced a partial pullout of Russia's military following a two-year battle against militias including ISIS to preserve the existing Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad—marked the start of a Middle East tour with an agenda that emphasises Russia's growing clout in the region and Washington's diminished role.
Putin followed up his Syrian stop-off by heading to Cairo where he was due to sign a $30bn deal with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to build North Africa’s first nuclear power plant. He was also set to discuss the mutual use of Egyptian air bases, which would extend Russia's presence and reach in the Middle East. Next on the schedule was a visit to Turkey to discuss Syria and other regional security issues with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Our armed forces and military-industrial enterprises demonstrated the growing might of Russia’s army and navy,” Putin told troops gathered at Khmeimim airbase, according to a Kremlin statement.
The US, which under former president Barack Obama made efforts to oust Assad, was essentially pushed out of the picture in Syria when in late 2015 Putin helped change the course of the civil war by committing Russian armed forces to the battle. Brutal air power was used in the siege of Aleppo, a turning point in the war. Iranian-backed militias also played a crucial role in turning the tide of the conflict.
The pullout also has a domestic political dimension as Putin announced he will seek another term as president in the Russian presidential election next March last week. The ghost of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan still haunts Russian politics and ending the conflict in Syria negates any claim by the opposition that Russia is being pulled into a similar trap in Syria. The pullout allows Putin milk the last drops of nationalist pride the Russians have felt from being major players on the international scene again.
But more importantly Putin has been very successfully re-establishing something similar to Russia’s Soviet-era leadership in the Middle East. US President Donald Trump's decision last week to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel looks to have played right into Putin’s hands so now he is following up on this advantage. Putin has come out against Trump's move, saying it has destabilised the region.
“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,” Bloomberg reported Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, as saying on Twitter.
In Turkey, Putin will discuss further cooperation with Ankara and Tehran to enforce ceasefire zones in Syria. A definitive peace settlement is proving elusive given the varying demands of the diverse opposition groups in the country that want Assad out. However, although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continues to state the US does not believe there is a long-term future for the Assad regime, the Trump administration is no longer insisting that he step down as a precondition for talks.
Despite the partial pullout, Russia has no plans to give up its airbase and naval port at Tartus in Syria, its only major military base in the Middle East that has been upgraded as a result of the conflict. Putin appeared on Russian state television, saying: “If the terrorists rear their head again, we’ll strike them in a way they’ve never seen before.”
In Egypt, there was speculation that Putin would announce plans to resume commercial air services between Moscow and Cairo. That would boost tourism in Egypt, which took a disastrous hit after Russia suspended flights to the country following the 2015 blowing up of a passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula. The terrorist attack on the Russia-bound aircraft killed all 224 people aboard the plane.