Putin pulls his forces out of Syria

Analysts suspect he will not relinquish his growing influence in the region

Vladimir Putin has be crucial in keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power
(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Russia is to begin withdrawing its troops from Syria after Vladimir Putin declared his mission there complete.

In his first visit to Syria since the civil war began six years ago, the Russian President told servicemen at the Khmeimim air base that “the motherland is waiting for you”. They were returning back home “with victory”, he said.

The Russian army claimed last week that Syria had been entirely liberated from Islamic State forces. “Talk of the total defeat of Isis may be premature,” says The Guardian, “but there is no doubt that Russian air power, combined with Syrian forces and Iran-backed Shia militias on the ground, has decisively shifted the balance of power” in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.

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The embattled leader was on the brink of defeat before Russia intervened in 2015, but his position is now so secure he was able to travel outside the country last month to meet Putin and offer him his thanks in person in Moscow.

With a Russian presidential election in March, Putin is keen to portray the Syria mission as a success. Rumours have been spreading that casualty reports were hushed up by Russian news outlets and recent polls have shown a growing majority opposed to a continued military presence in the country.

Signalling the end of Russia’s military operation in Syria “will go down well with Russian voters”, says the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg. And from a Russian point of view, it has been a success: as well as protecting a close ally, it also succeeded in “preventing Moscow’s international isolation” after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 sparked western sanctions.

“Putin has largely staked his legacy on Russia’s revival as the dominant military power in its region and a counterweight to the West in the Middle East”, says the Washington Post, and his surprise announcement kicked off a whirlwind tour, “which exhibited his growing diplomatic clout”.

Following his short stop-off in Syria, where he was met personally by Assad, Putin travelled to Cairo to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They discussed bilateral nuclear cooperation before Putin left for Ankara to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The tour of his new Middle Eastern allies “underscored the extension of Russia’s influence in the region” and came as anger is running high over Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, “a decision that has helped isolate the US, angering allies in Europe and the Arab world while helping to convince the Arab public that the country is solidly anti-Muslim”, reports The New York Times.

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