Putin Claims Victory at Syria Base on Triumphal Mideast Tour

(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin made a surprise stop at Russia’s airbase in Syria to declare “victory” in his two-year military campaign, part of a whirlwind three-nation Middle East tour aimed at demonstrating his growing influence in the region at U.S. expense.

After ordering troops to begin pulling out of Syria, Putin flew to Cairo to seal a $30 billion deal in talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to build North Africa’s first nuclear power plant. He then traveled to Turkey to discuss Syria and reach a deal on financing of a defensive missile sale with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Russian leader’s burst of Middle East diplomacy comes amid tensions between the U.S. and many of its traditional allies in the region.

“Our armed forces and military-industrial enterprises have demonstrated the growing might of Russia’s army and navy,” Putin told troops at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria, according to a Kremlin statement. Russia’s action in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad helped “the people of Syria to preserve their statehood,” he said.

Putin’s triumphant appearance in Syria underlines his success in sidelining the U.S. since he ordered Russia’s military to intervene in the conflict in September 2015. The U.S. under President Barack Obama demanded Assad’s removal, while Putin’s willingness to back the Syrian leader with force against rebel groups helped reverse the course of a civil war that’s killed more than 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing since it erupted in 2011.

‘Military Presence’

Amid anger among Arab leaders at President Donald Trump’s decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Putin is pressing his advantage to restore Russia’s Soviet-era leadership in the Middle East.

“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,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Twitter.

In Egypt, Russia is negotiating an agreement on mutual use of air bases by their militaries, which would extend the Kremlin’s reach in the region. Putin also announced plans to resume commercial air service between Moscow and Cairo, offering Egypt a boost to tourism after flights were suspended in 2015 when terrorists blew up a passenger jet destined for Russia over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.

Turkey Tensions

Putin used his appearance in Ankara to reiterate his criticism of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, saying the bid to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv “doesn’t help settle the situation in the Middle East” and damages the prospects for peace.

Standing alongside Erdogan, Putin said the leaders reached an understanding on financing for two S-400 missile-defense systems Turkey is buying for $2.5 billion and will sign a formal agreement later this week. The first delivery under the deal which has fueled tensions with Turkey’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is expected in 2019.

Putin is working with Turkey and Iran to enforce cease-fire zones in Syria as he seeks to revive long-stalled efforts to reach a peace settlement. He’s also reached out to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to persuade opposition groups to join Russian-hosted peace talks with Assad. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed in October that “we do not believe there is a future for the Assad regime and the Assad family,” the U.S. is no longer demanding that he step down as a precondition for talks.

Although Putin said most of Russia’s forces will leave Syria, he said his country will maintain the airbase and a naval port at Tartus. “If the terrorists rear their head again, we’ll strike them in a way they’ve never seen before,” he said in comments broadcast on Russian state television.

Tight Secrecy

It’s not the first time he’s announced Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. Putin ordered a pullback of forces in March 2016, saying the military campaign had created “conditions for the start” of peace talks, only to resume large-scale operations in support of Syrian troops during the siege of Aleppo.

At the Pentagon, Colonel Rob Manning, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters Monday that, “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions.” In any case, he said, Russian plans “don’t impact our priorities” in Syria.

The three-nation tour follows Putin’s announcement last week that he’ll seek a fourth term in presidential elections in March, potentially extending his 18-year rule to 2024.

“This is a piece of theater for Putin” timed for the election campaign, said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow. “Military victory, which was pretty easy to achieve, won’t lead by itself to a political solution” in Syria.

Efforts to lure Egypt and Turkey away from the U.S. and into Russia’s orbit will have only partial success because Washington still remains an essential player in the region, according to the analyst.

“There’s an effort by Russia to exploit regional powers’ dissatisfaction with the U.S, but these countries can’t make any radical changes in policy,” Shumilin said.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.