By Neil MacFarquhar and Anne Barnard
December 11, 2017
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia undertook a whirlwind tour to his new allies in the Middle East on Monday, underscoring the extension of Russia’s influence in the region and the continuing shrinkage of the United States’ role.
Mr. Putin touched down in rapid succession in Syria and Egypt, where he met briefly with their leaders, and landed in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, later in the day.
His excursion came as anger at the United States was running high over President Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, as the capital of Israel. That decision has helped isolate the United States and Israel, angering allies in Europe and the Arab world while helping to convince the Arab public that the United States is solidly anti-Muslim.
In Brussels on Monday, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was firmly rebuffed when he encouraged the European Union to “recognize the facts” and endorse Mr. Trump’s action.
Mr. Putin’s trip had domestic implications as well, showcasing his role as a global statesman just as he embarks on a campaign for another presidential term, his fifth and possibly last.
At each stop, there was some accomplishment or friendship to trumpet.
In a brief visit to a Russian air base in Syria, where he was greeted by President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Putin again said that Russia’s military had achieved its mission and would head home, a pledge he first made in March 2016 and has broken repeatedly in the past.
In Egypt, Mr. Putin and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi discussed several issues that reflected Moscow’s expanding role. They confirmed at a news conference that Russia had agreed to resume direct tourist flights to Egypt, suspended after the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula in 2015, which could restore billions of dollars in revenue. And they appeared to confirm the signing of a contract for Russia to build a $30 billion nuclear plant, Egypt’s first. Late last month, the two countries were reported to be exploring an agreement for the Russian air force to use Egyptian military bases.
The trip to Turkey was the last scheduled for the day; with the agenda focused on political talks to end the war in Syria and the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defence system to Turkey. Russia has in the past refused such a sale, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said at a joint news conference on Monday that the two countries would this week “come together to conclude necessary work for S-400.”
The session was the eighth time Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan have met this year, and lately they have been getting together every two weeks.
Russia has taken full advantage of the American reluctance to engage in various Middle East conflicts, especially Syria, to reconstruct relations with various capitals like Cairo, which expelled the Soviets in the early 1970s after years of close military cooperation.
Although Mr. Putin is assured of victory in the 2018 presidential election in March, he is seeking a record turnout and a record level of support, according to reports in the Russian news media.
To do that, he needs both to generate excitement in a lacklustre campaign and to at least appear focused on domestic issues, according to various analysts, even if he personally seems far more animated when discussing foreign policy than fixing roads. Hence, he wants to significantly reduce the Russian role in Syria before campaigning begins in earnest in February.
“People are not that much concerned about Syria, it is a faraway land that people do not know much about,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a political analyst and talk show host on independent television. If Russians think about it at all, he and other analysts said, they typically wonder why the Kremlin is spending money in a region long peopled by savages bent on killing one another.
In Syria, Mr. Putin repeated that Russian forces had defeated the threat from Islamic militants that they had come to confront two years ago, although many believe that the real purpose was to shore up Mr. Assad, at the time Russia’s last ally in the region.
“In two years, the Russian armed forces, together with the Syrian Army have defeated the most combat-capable group of international terrorists,” Mr. Putin said in a speech at the Hmeimim air base in Syria. “In connection with this, I have made a decision: A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia.”
As usual, Mr. Putin left himself plenty of wiggle room by saying that “a significant part” of the troops would come home. He also noted that Russia established a permanent presence, with the Hmeimim base and an expanded naval station at Tartus, Syria.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, was even more equivocal, saying that there was no specific timetable for the withdrawal. “It is clear that it is not a matter of a day,” he said.
Some analysts said that Mr. Putin’s visit and announcement of the withdrawal could be seen in part as an effort to pressure Mr. Assad, who up to now has shown remarkable willingness to defy Russia’s stated goal of a substantive political process despite his deep reliance on Russian power.
Russia has not only propped up Mr. Assad’s beleaguered army, but has also helped push international peace talks away from an earlier consensus that Mr. Assad step down before any transition could be negotiated.
But Moscow does not want to indefinitely support a weakened Syrian state with questionable legitimacy. Russia has lost hundreds of military personnel in the fighting, and is spending heavily on the war effort and on propping up the government. And Mr. Putin is eager to declare victory, not only militarily but to cement his leadership of an international diplomatic effort that he sees as crowning Russia’s return to the world stage as an equal to the United States.
Syrian opposition negotiators taking part in the United Nations-led talks in Geneva broadly welcomed Mr. Putin’s troop withdrawal order. “It will help us, it’s good, we are very positive,” said Hind Kabawat, a member of the opposition negotiating team.
They expressed the hope that Russia was now ready to use whatever leverage it had with Mr. Assad to press for compromises that would inject momentum into the Geneva talks. Other analysts noted that if nothing of substance happened in Geneva or on the Syrian battlefield, then Mr. Putin’s announcement of a troop withdrawal would have had more to do with Russia’s domestic politics than with Syria.
In Turkey, Mr. Putin was expected to seek Ankara’s support in containing Islamist militias in the northern Syrian provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, and would be pressing Mr. Erdogan to recognize Mr. Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria, said Hakan Aksay, a Russia analyst and columnist for the independent Turkish news site, T24.
Mr. Erdogan said at the news conference that after discussing Syria with Mr. Putin on Monday, the next step was to hold a second meeting in Sochi, Russia. He called the close relationship between Russia and Turkey “meaningful for the stability in the region.”
Turkey still calls for the removal of Mr. Assad but, like most in the opposition, no longer insists on his removal as a precondition of peace talks.
Turkey also adamantly opposes having Syrian Kurds at the negotiating table, Mahir Unal, a spokesman for Mr. Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party, told a recent meeting of international journalists. The Syrian Kurdish groups are supported by the United States, but Turkey says they are allied with the outlawed separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and Ankara is increasingly concerned that weapons could be transferred to insurgents in Turkey.
Neil MacFarquhar reported from Moscow, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Cairo, Carlotta Gall from Istanbul and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.