Putin Announces Beginning Of Russian Withdrawal From Syria
During an unannounced visit to Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase in eastern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that “a significant part of the Russian troop contingent” located in the country would be withdrawn.
Russia has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chief allies in the country’s civil war, which began in 2011. Initially, Russian support was limited to providing political support for the Assad government and military supplies. In 2015, Russia forces began intervening directly in the conflict, primarily through air strikes operating out of Hmeimim. These strikes targeted the numerous factions opposing Assad in the civil war, including ISIS, the rebel opposition, and al-Qaeda.
Russia’s air support is mostly credited with giving Assad’s forces the upper hand in the conflict, allowing them to recapture vast amounts of territory from both the rebels and ISIS. In his announcement today, Putin claimed that “in general, the combat work in this territory is completed.”
In addition to ordering the troop withdrawal, Putin also said that Russia would continue operating Hmeimim Airbase and the Russian naval facility in Tartus permanently. The naval facility, the Russian Navy’s sole maintenance and supply port on the Mediterranean, has been in operation since 1971 (under the USSR). A new agreement signed in January of this year will allow Russia to renovate and expand the Tartus complex.
According to AFP News, US officials have expressed skepticism about Putin’s announcement.
Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said, “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria.”
While the air campaign has been Russia’s main contribution to the Syrian conflict, they also have military advisors and special forces stationed in the country. Reporting by Reuters suggests that Putin is also relying on private military contractors in Syria, though the Russian defense ministry denies the allegation.
The Syria announcement was part of Putin’s three-country trip on Monday. The Russian President also met with his counterparts in Turkey and Egypt, seeking to leverage the results of the military intervention into a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Putin’s trip also comes ahead of his campaign for reelection in March of next year.
In his speech today, Putin called the Russian intervention a success, telling the assembled service members that “You are coming home with a victory, to your relatives, parents, wives, children, and friends. Your Motherland is waiting for you, my friends.” He also argued that the country’s role in Syria “proved the growing power of the Russian Army and Navy, the high combat capabilities of our military units.” Though polls show that Putin is the overwhelming favorite in the upcoming election, some observers have suggested that today’s announcement had more to do with Russian domestic politics than the Syrian conflict.
Other experts expressed doubt that this would change the situation on the ground, since the Russian air base will remain in operation, and Iranian supported militias have supported much of the Syrian army’s inroads on the field.
Visit to Khmeimim Air Base in #Syriahttps://t.co/rDnGNNVNVC pic.twitter.com/8ub44EOuE4
— Vladimir Putin (@PutinRF_Eng) December 11, 2017