Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a surprise visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, announcing an imminent drawdown of Russian forces in the wake of his declaration of victory in its intervention in the Syria war.
In his first visit to the air base since Russian warplanes secretly flew to Syria in late 2015, Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to begin the “withdrawal of Russian troop contingents” to their permanent bases.
But Putin left open the door to a continued Russian presence in Syria, saying that both Russia’s air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus would keep operating. He promised further strikes in the future “if terrorists raise their head again” – an apparent reference to forces in Syria’s long civil war that sought to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We will deliver such strikes on them that they have not seen yet,” he said in remarks to military personnel at the air base.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Assad’s government and gave Syrian forces a critical edge against rebel factions backed by the West and its Middle East allies. Iran, another key supporter of Assad, provided military advisers and other aid.
Putin, who declared last week that he would run for a fourth term as president, has largely staked his legacy on Russia’s revival as the dominant military power in its region.
The speech to the troops also had the whiff of a reelection campaign to it at times.
“You are victorious and you are going home to your families, parents, wives, children, and friends,” Putin told pilots at the air base, in remarks carried by Russian news services. “The fatherland is waiting for you, my friends. Have a safe trip home. I am grateful for your service.”
The deployment of troops to Syria marked Moscow’s first major overseas military campaign since the invasion of Afghanistan under the Soviet Union. In July, Russia extended its lease of the Khmeimim air base for 49 years, giving Moscow a military foothold in the region for several generations.
At the air base, Putin met with Syrian leader Assad, whose regime appeared close to defeat in the summer of 2015 before the Russian intervention. At the time, it appeared Assad would be forced to step down.
“I have come, as I promised,” Putin told him, according to remarks carried by the Interfax news agency. While hailing the fall of the extremist Islamic State group, Putin also noted the rebuke to Western plans in the region. “Syria has been preserved as a sovereign independent state,” he said.
Putin has been eager to declare the intervention a victory, and has already announced several times that he would order Russian troops to withdrawal. The first drawdown was announced by Putin in March 2016, as Syrian troops backed by Russian air power and special forces, made a final push to recapture the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.
Western leaders were skeptical that Russia would pull back its troops, and Russian forces were later key in the race to snatch up territory ahead of Islamic State’s eventual collapse.
The intervention has showcased much of Russia’s military might: state-of-the-art warplanes, helicopters, and warships, cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea, as well as a contingent of ground troops estimated by Russian military experts and press at several thousand. Several dozen Russian troops have been killed in more than two years of combat, according to Russian military statistics, and dozens of others, likely serving as military contractors, have also died.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Andrew Roth