Putin says he’ll pull Russian troops from Syria. Here’s the catch.

It may seem like Putin is packing up in Syria, but Russia will keep a base there, and look to expand its influence in Egypt and Libya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (CREDIT: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via AP Photo.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (CREDIT: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via AP Photo.)

While meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced that a major portion of Russian military presence in the country would start withdrawing, Reuters reported on Monday.

“A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia. The Motherland is waiting for you,” said Putin, addressing servicemen.

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Putin, who was visiting the Hmeymim air base south of Latakia, also said that the self-proclaimed Islamic State had been defeated by the Syrian-Russian alliance in two years, although the declaration of victory does not really mean that Russia is leaving Syria. In addition to operating at Hmeymim, Russia will maintain its naval facility in Tartus (50 miles south or Latakia). In January, Russia signed a 49-year agreement for a naval logistics facility there, according to Russia’s Tass news agency. The agreement is renewable for 25 years at a time, and, as Putin said on Monday, these facilities — both protected by air defense missile systems — will be maintained on a “permanent” basis.

Putin is riding a wave of PR victories, often at the expense of U.S. interests. He’s already sidelined the United States in Syria, inviting Assad, along with the Turkish and Iranian presidents for talks on the future of Syria. A Kremlin spokesperson also confirmed that Putin will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday to discuss a political solution in Syria in preparation for what comes out of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue, which is to be held in Sochi in February.

Russia scaling back on its troops leaves the space wide open for Iran, which has been heavily involved in Syria’s civil war, with little indication that it, too, is preparing for a drawdown.

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“Simply because Russia announces a significant troop withdrawal, that doesn’t make it so,” said Charles Dunlap, law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University’s School of Law. He added that he still expects “a meaningful Russian presence to remain.”

Dunlap does, however, wonder about what this will mean for Iran’s role in a region where several Gulf Arab players — notably, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are already leery of its influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar.

“It’s also true that the Iranians will step up their efforts to build their influence in the area, and that has to be a concern for the Administration,” said Dunlap, who is also a retired Air Force major general, replying to ThinkProgress via email.

“U.S. forces in the region are sufficient to counter the residual threat from ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, but do not appear to be configured or resourced to counter Iranian influence — which is a mission I don’t believe the military has yet been assigned,” said Dunlap.

A key question remains, though: How can the United States counter Iran’s influence, while relying on it (at least in part) to help keep insurgents at bay? The answer: It’s complicated — and maybe impossible.

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“I think it’s fairly clear that Iran has succeeded in creating its highway from Tehran to Beirut,” said Theodore Karasik, project investigator for the Russia in the Middle East Project at the Jamestown Foundation. This means that the United States, he said, “is going to find that it’s going to stay on the ground in the Levant, particularly in Syria.”

“Now the Russians and the Iranians seem to be struggling over the power and control of the future of Syria’s assets, in terms of oil and gas,” said Karasik. “Russia’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, particularly with Syria but also with Iran and Qatar and Yemen and Libya and Algeria and so on is all premised on the future of natural gas,” said Karasik.

In addition to having his very own “mission accomplished” moment in Syria, Putin has criticized President Donald Trump’s approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis, accusing the United States of striking a tone that will do little to help negotiate Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He has been pointing out the futility of sanctions, saying in September that, “North Korea would rather eat grass than abandon its nuclear program.”

Russia’s foreign minister in November flat-out said that if the United States is just looking for an excuse to attack North Korea, that it should “say it directly.”

But Putin, who is expected to handily win re-election in March, is also muscling in on Egypt with an eye on Libya. He met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the details of advancing plans to build nuclear reactors in Egypt, the Associated Press reported. This follows a deal allowing Russian warplanes to use Egyptian airbases.

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“Russia is seeking to duplicate its success in Syria in North Africa via Egypt,” said Karasik. “It is clear that Egypt and Russia are about to up their game against extremism not only in the Sinai but across North Africa.”

Egypt has been struggling under the strain of increasing militant threats both in the Sinai as well as in its capital of Cairo. It has also taken some tough economic hits. Although on a slight upturn now, the tourism industry there suffered owing to security concerns. The United States’ act of cutting over $100 million in aid over Sisi’s “failure to make progress on respecting human rights and democratic norms” further compounded the issue, although, according to the International Monetary Fund, the economy is starting to recover.

Sisi, like Putin, supports Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, linked to the government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. Haftar, it should be noted, controls the areas holding most of Libya’s oilfields and is often referred to as “Putin’s man in Libya.” As ThinkProgress previously reported, Russia is also where Libya’s eastern government is getting its own currency printed. This relationship, said Karasik, is only going to grow.

“The Obama administration left wide open the Middle East for Russia to enter — which Putin did. Under Trump, this policy by Russia is continuing, not so much because of the administration itself, but because of regional geopolitical dynamics,” he said.