On December 11, President Vladimir Putin landed on the tarmac at Hmeymim—the main Russian military base in Syria—for a visit that was reported only after Putin’s jet was already safely in the air heading to Egypt. Apparently, to prevent any unauthorized leaks, journalists in the president’s press pool were flown directly to Cairo. The Kremlin press service provided all the reporting and footage from Hmeymim during Putin’s short visit. Russian journalists are never allowed to board the presidential jet, but are transported on a separate one (Kommersant, December 12).
At Hmeymim, Putin met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime was salvaged by the Russian and Iranian war effort. Putin announced victory over the Islamic State (IS)—“the vanguard of terror”—thanked Russian pilots and soldiers, and announced the withdrawal of “a large part” of the Russian forces. The Kremlin leader promised, “If the terrorists raise their head again,” they will be crushed with force “they had not yet experienced.” The commander of the Russian forces in Syria, Sergei Surovikin (a tank general recently promoted to chief of the Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily, VKS—Russia’s joint space, air and air defense command), announced that 23 different jets and 2 attack helicopters will be withdrawn, together with a battalion of military police, a field hospital, a contingent of special forces, and sappers. The men are being airlifted back to Russia, and the aircraft have been flying to home bases. Russia is retaining its bases in Hmeymim and Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria; the garrisons and support staffs will stay, and there have been no reports of any heavy military equipment being shipped out of Syria by sea (Interfax, December 12). Some of the designated troop withdrawals may be part of a regular force rotation.
Moscow has announced troop withdraws from Syria and claimed victory before. On March 14, 2016, in a surprise move, Putin announced the Russian military mission in Syria “mostly accomplished” and ordered an immediate withdraw of “most of our forces” (Kremlin.ru, March 14, 2016; see EDM, March 17, 2016). Still the war continued and the Russian military presence in fact increased.
IS’s quasi-state has been vanquished in Iraq and Syria, though the group will most likely continue to exist as a guerrilla-terror organization. Russian officials declare themselves the sole victors, with al-Assad forces providing assistance; while the efforts of the international coalition led by the United States are dismissed as irrelevant. Army General (ret.) Viktor Bondarev, who commanded the VKS during most of the Syrian campaign and was recently appointed chairman of the Senate defense and security committee, accused the US and the “so-called anti-terrorist coalition” of supporting the Syrian opposition and helping terrorists. “The Syrian people and government did not invite the Americans, their presence is illegal and a security threat,” continued Bondarev, “The Americans may breed new radicals and terrorists, but the continued Russian presence may help stabilize the situation” (Militarynews.ru, December 12).
The Russian military intervention in Syria was always primarily about countering the US in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Fighting the Islamic State and other jihadists, together with Iran and its allied militias, are important but secondary tasks for Moscow. In May 2017, speaking at a session of the upper house of parliament—the Federation Council—Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the main strategic accomplishment of Russia’s Syrian campaign was the establishment of a strong military force (gruperovka) “on the south flank of NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], which dramatically changed the strategic balance of power in the region.” In the same speech Shoigu called on the Russian people “not to be blind” to the growing menace “of NATO activities on the borders of Russia” (Mil.ru, May 24).
Putin’s surprise visit to Hmeymim and the massive media hype about Russia’s victory have a clear internal dimension. Presidential elections will be held next March, and although within the country’s authoritarian system Putin’s reelection is assured, the Kremlin wants to maximize turnout and pro-Putin enthusiasm (see EDM, December 7). The overseas Syrian campaign was never particularly popular in Russia. But declaring victory over the Islamic State, humiliating the United States and announcing that the troops are coming home—all in one day—is a public relations triumph. To reinforce the effect, the Russian military command trumpeted the relocation of heavy Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers from the Mozdok airbase in the steppes of the Northern Caucasus to permanent home bases in the Kaluzhskaya oblast, Irkutsk and the Kola Peninsula as the planes’ “successful return to base after completing mission in Syria” (Interfax, December 12). During the last month, the Backfires flew 84 sorties from Mozdok, carpet-bombing remaining IS strongholds in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. The bomber crews were greeted at their home bases with official pomp (Militarynews.ru, December 12).
In Cairo, after Putin briefly met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the two sides signed a $21 billion contract for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt. Moscow will reportedly open a credit line to cover some 85 percent of the costs. An agreement was also reached to resume passenger air traffic between the two countries, which was halted in 2015 after a Russian passenger jet was destroyed by an onboard bomb over Sinai and 224 lives were lost. Egypt hopes the passenger flight resumption may bring back Russian tourists (Kommersant, December 12). From Cairo, Putin flew to Ankara (all on December 11), where, after meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an agreement was announced to open a credit line for Turkey to purchase two “divisions” (batteries) of advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles (Militarynews.ru, December 11).
Moscow seems to be in a unique position to have workable relations with almost all the different warring parties in the region and has managed to position itself as an indispensable force and middleman in the Middle East (see EDM, November 27, 29). Last April, without much pomp or scandal, Moscow officially recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and extended the possibility of eventually moving its embassy from Tel Aviv—improving its relations with Israeli without angering Arab and Muslim nations (Interfax, December 7).
Moscow has a clear strategy in the Middle East and it appears to be working rather well; though Russia’s lack of overall resources to match its ambitious objectives is a serious detractor. Washington, on the other hand, has abundant resources, military and otherwise, but no obvious coherent strategy in the Middle East, reacting to events at best. It is a fascinating contest.