On January 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Syria’s capital, Damascus, to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This unannounced visit was only Putin’s second trip to Syria since its protracted civil war began nearly nine years ago.
Putin and Assad are allies, and the Russian military has supported Assad’s Ba’athist Syrian Arab Republic forces throughout Syria’s civil war.
A recent withdrawal of US troops from the area is considered advantageous to Putin and Assad’s goals for the region.
What happened during Putin’s visit to Syria?
During Putin’s first visit to Damascus, the Russian and Syrian presidents were given a presentation by the head of Russia’s military forces in the country. Putin also met with members of his country’s fighting forces as they celebrated Orthodox Christmas (which falls on January 7) abroad. Russia first sent troops to Syria in support of the Assad regime in 2015, four years after Syria’s civil war began in March 2011.
The last time the two leaders met was in May 2018 at Putin’s summer residence in Russia.
Putin’s intentions in the region
Syria’s civil war has been a major source of volatility and strife in the Middle East, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and millions displaced throughout the region and into Europe. In the midst of this conflict, Putin has sought to prop up Russia’s political and financial interests by supporting Assad’s efforts.
By supporting Assad, Putin is able to maintain influence in an infamously unstable region while simultaneously weakening Russia’s European rivals. Syria’s close proximity to nations in the European Union has led to a refugee crisis on the continent that has resulted in much political turmoil.
It’s believed that Putin is seeking to increase instability in the EU and other western countries. There have been suggestions that Putin is manipulating national politics in several European countries in order to serve his own ends, including sowing discord during elections.
What does Assad want?
Assad is seeking to hold onto power in Syria in the wake of an uprising of pro-democracy forces. He has been in power since 2000. Prior to that, his father, Hafez al-Assad, was president from 1971 until his death in 2000.
Beyond the civil war, parts of Syria have also been occupied by ISIS, a fundamentalist Islamic regime that wishes to establish a caliphate – or Islamic state – in the region. Assad has been fighting against ISIS forces while also fighting the civil war. For this and other reasons, Russian support has been essential to Assad’s ability to maintain his strength.
Though the US and EU have opposed Assad’s undemocratic methods, they have also been fighting ISIS. Western-led efforts to eradicate ISIS have largely worked towards Assad’s interest as he seeks to consolidate power in the country.
Even as Assad has engaged in the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, western countries have been reluctant to fully intervene out of fear that doing so would allow room for ISIS or another malevolent group to fill the power vacuum that would result should Assad’s government collapse.
Russian and Syrian military actions
The combined military strength of Russia and Syria has led to numerous deaths and an increasing wave of refugees to other countries. Though the two allied governments say they are fighting extremists in the region, humanitarian aid groups on the ground in Syria claim that innocent civilians are the ones being most impacted.
These aid groups say the plight of the Syrian people is only getting worse, especially as many refugees are coming across the borders of neighboring countries such as Turkey.
The US withdrawal from Syria
In October 2019, US President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. This was seen as a concession that would likely allow for a resurgence of ISIS, which Trump had claimed had already been defeated. The withdrawal allowed Turkish forces to move into territory formerly occupied by the US military and its Kurdish allies. The US decision was seen as an abandonment of America’s allies in the region.
After announcing the withdrawal of troops, Trump seemed to partially reverse course by saying the US would deploy a small number of troops to Syria’s oil fields. On his Twitter account, the US president argued that this was not a reversal and that US troops’ only purpose there would be protecting oil.
With the US having largely abandoned the area, many believe that Assad and Putin’s allied position in the region has been strengthened. The Kurdish fighters who had formerly fought alongside American troops called on assistance from Syria and Russia in their fight against Turkish forces. As a result, Russia’s influence in the region has likely increased.Meanwhile, after US troops were withdrawn, at least three abandoned bases that had been used by the American military were taken over by Russian forces.