Putin claims victory in Syria months before expected re-election

MOSCOW, Peter Spinella and Shabtai Gold (dpa)- Putin, who has held power for more than a decade and a half, announced last week that he will run for re-election in March. The next day Russia proclaimed mission accomplished in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to his country's troops at an airbase in north-western Syria on Monday that many of them would soon be returning home.

"Victorious, you are returning to your homes, to your loved ones, parents, wives, children, friends. The motherland is waiting for you. I thank you for your service," Putin told the crowd at the Hmeimim base, in televised comments.
Last week at a meeting of veterans and workers at an automotive factory in the Russian heartland, Putin announced that in March he would run for another six-year term as president.
The very next day Russia's Defence Ministry proclaimed it had accomplished its mission in Syria to defeat the extremist group Islamic State and would focus on rebuilding the country and preserving peace.
"Russia has elections coming up. It's nice to be able to point to a win before those elections," said Sam Heller, an analyst in Beirut with The Century Foundation, a US-based think tank.
Putin, who has been in power either as president or prime minister for more than a decade and a half, is almost certain to win re-election.
Last week the country's largest independent pollster, Levada Centre, said that almost 70 per cent of the Russians who intended to vote in the upcoming election would vote for Putin, according to a nationwide survey.
Putin announced on Monday that Russia was withdrawing a "significant portion of the Russian military contingent" from Syria.
This move ahead of the election "is clearing away potential liabilities," said Russia expert Mark Galeotti. "The prospect of casualties in Syria is not at all popular. This is a way of reassuring the Russian populace."
"Of course, the fighting in Syria isn't over, even against Islamic State, but the conflict likely is moving into a different, political-military phase," said Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
"To an extent, Moscow just needs there to be a plausible ally government in Damascus, not peace or total victory," Galeotti said.
Moscow made an analogous announcement in March 2016 that it was withdrawing the bulk of its troops from Syria. Soon thereafter, it appeared that Russia was continuing operations as usual.
"At that time the combat capacity of the Syrian military was too weak compared with the challenge they faced," said Russian security analyst Nabi Abdullaev. Russia responded to that challenge by bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops and "crushing their enemies."
"Russia used this year to train al-Assad's military. Moscow will continue doing this and will also supply Damascus with military hardware and weapons," said Abdullaev, associate director for Russia at the global consultancy Control Risks Group.
Abdullaev doubted that Russia's withdrawal of forces from Syria would have much effect on voters in March, however. "In the upcoming three months this episode will drop off the media's radar and the public's memory."
"Since the cost of the war, led mainly by airstrikes, did not cause much pain for average Russians," Abdullaev said, "its ending would not be met with strong public gratitude for Putin."
"The war in Syria was important for bolstering patriotic feelings through visual demonstration of Russia's military might reaching out far beyond its borders," he said. "Now Russians should expect much less of such visuals on their TVs."

Tuesday, December 12th 2017
Peter Spinella and Shabtai Gold

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