In a surprise visit to Khmeimim Airbase in Syria, a victorious Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian military forces after the defeat of the ISIS “caliphate.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was among those who greeted the Russian president upon his arrival.
Putin’s arrival marks the first visit of a foreign leader since the beginning of the Syrian civil war seven years ago.
“The motherland awaits you,” Putin told his men, claiming Russian forces had succeeded in preserving the territorial integrity of Syria. “I congratulate you!”
The Russian leader also threatened Islamic radicals, promising “if terrorists raise their heads again” Russia would “carry out such strikes on them which they have never seen.”
Putin’s visit comes less than a week after he declared victory on both the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates and the “total rout” of the terrorists.
Assad paid tribute to what he called the “martyrs” of the Russian armed forces who died battling ISIS. The two leaders embraced and watched a victory parade as Russian troops marched by.
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Assad’s political survival is a rebuke to many American policymakers and journalists. Only a few months ago, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., claimed ISIS could not be defeated until Assad was removed.
“This focus that you can defeat ISIS as long as Assad is there is not true,” Rubio said. “They are two sides of the same coin.”
As Max Abrahms and John Glaser noted in the Los Angeles Times, “The pundits were wrong about Assad and the Islamic State [and] as usual, they’re not willing to admit it.”
Assad still faces enemies within Syria, but as critics have noted, some of the so-called rebels are as committed to Islamic terrorism as was ISIS.
Putin’s activities did not end in Syria. The Russian leader also met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday. Russian state television announced Russia would help Egypt create its first nuclear power plant.
The two countries are also hoping to re-establish flights between Russia and Egypt, suspended following the Islamic State’s destruction of a Russian airliner in 2015.
Putin also will visit Turkey to discuss Syria and the status of Jerusalem with his counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Putin has called President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem “counterproductive” and warned it could “provoke conflict.”
The whirlwind Middle East tour is likely intended not just to show Russia’s growing geopolitical strength, but to boost Putin’s image. Last week, the Russian leader announced his intention to seek another term as president. He is expected to win the March 18 election overwhelmingly, as a recent poll shows three-quarters of Russian voters intend to support the incumbent.