Putin claims victory over Isis on surprise firstvisit to Syria
President Putin made an unannounced visit to Syria yesterday to claim victory in the war to save the Assad regime, even as it continued to fight Islamic State and prepared attacks on remaining pockets of rebel control.
He was met by President Assad, his close ally, and Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, at Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, a permanent operations hub for the Russian air force.
Mr Putin said that he would start withdrawing Russian forces —a claim he has made before —as their mission in Syria had been accomplished.
He told troops: “In a little more than two years Russia’s armed forces, together with the Syrian army, have destroyed the most combat-effective group of international terrorists.
“You are returning with victory to your hearths, to your dear ones, your parents, wives, children and friends. The Motherland is waiting for you, friends. Bon voyage. I thank you for your service.”
Russia began a bombing campaign in support of Assad in September 2015 after the regime’s troops and their allies, backed by Iran, failed to hold off an alliance of “moderate” rebels, Islamists and jihadists in northwest Syria.
After stabilising Assad’s position against the rebels, Russia helped him to retake rebel-held east Aleppo a year ago.
When US-backed, Kurdish-led forces began to drive back Isis in the east of the country, the regime, Russia and a new infusion of Iranian-supplied militias turned their attention to Isis as well.
Mr Putin announced last week that “the operations on the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates [in Syria] have been completed with the total rout of the terrorists”. He added: “Naturally, there could still be some pockets of resistance.”
Russia’s embassy in London tweeted the news with the slogan, “Mission Accomplished” —a curious reference to the claim made in 2003 by President Bush Jr that the war in Iraq had been won, but which proved to be a precursor to years of violent jihadist insurgency.
The Pentagon has expressed scepticism at Mr Putin’s claim of “total victory”, saying that thousands of Isis fighters are still active. Russia is estimated to have had up to 50 aircraft
and 4,000 servicemen in Syria, including special forces and military advisers.Mr Putin appears eager to emphasise the dominance his country has acquired in the Middle East since Barack Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in2011 and President Trump announced an “America first” policy.
After visiting Syria the Russian president flew to Cairo, once firmly in the American orbit, to announce co-operation on a new nuclear energy plant at Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. The contract was signed in a televised ceremony where he appeared alongside President Sisi.
Egypt is already buying arms from Russia and last month announced that it would let Moscow use its military airbases.
On this occasion plans for a Russian-sponsored industrial zone were discussed and a new round of Syrian ceasefire talks were confirmed, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, to be held next week in Astana, Kazakhstan.
These will run in parallel with the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, which have been becalmed over the western-backed opposition’s determination to discuss political “transition”.
The Astana talks will instead focus on “de-escalation zones”, where non-jihadists and the regime agree to local ceasefires.
However, these have not prevented the Assad regime imposing crippling sieges on the district of eastern Ghouta near Damascus and elsewhere, or even launching military operations.
Over the weekend regime forces bombed Hama in western Syria, the front line of the largest rebel and jihadist-held pocket in the country.
The regime is also said to be preparing an attack south of Damascus, where a ceasefire negotiated between the Americans, the Russians and Jordanians is supposed to be in force.
Russia’s long-term plans for Syria remain unclear. Mr Putin’s repeated claim to be withdrawing troops has led western diplomats to believe that he will not back Assad in an attempt to reclaim the whole country by force. However, that partly depends on whether Mr Trump maintains support for the militias backed by America.
Officially, 40 Russian servicemen have died in the conflict but the real number is thought to be much higher, with dozens of casualties from private military companies adding to the toll.
Richard Spencer y Tom Parfitt