#PutinAtWar: Putin Pays a Visit to Syria

A quick look into Russian President Putin’s visit to Syria

(Source: YouTube / Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an unexpected visit to Syria on December 11 to publicly announce Russia’s military withdrawal from the country. @DFRLab previously reported on Russia’s alleged withdrawal from Syria next year, but this time the message was delivered by the President himself.

We took a closer look at the unexpected visit between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Location

Putin’s plane landed at Syria’s Khmeimim Airbase on early Monday morning. An official statement on the Russian MoD (Ministry of Defense) website appeared before noon and was soon followed by messages on Russian media websites. The videos supplied with the official statement and the media articles provided more insight into the surprise visit.

The main ceremony took place at Khmeimim Airbase in the Latakia Governorate. @DFRLab reported on the Russian presence at this military facility, where Russia houses a significant troop presence, jet fighters, and the SAM S400 missile system. The location of the ceremony can be seen on the below map.

The podium was placed in front of the main terminal, where Putin delivered his speech.

Location of the Putin’s speech. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Top Right: (Source: YouTube / Sott Media); Bottom Right: (Source: YouTube / Associated Press).

After the speech, a small military parade took place in front of the podium. Russian soldiers marched saluting President Putin.

Russian soldiers saluting Putin. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: YouTube / Sott Media).

However, an interesting incident occurred right before the speech. Syrian President Assad was not allowed to follow Putin to the podium. Right before Putin walked to the podium, Assad tried to follow Putin closely and was slowed by a soldier wearing the same fatigues that Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu. We take that to mean a Russian soldier slowed Syrian President Assad from joining President Putin on stage.

Assad being stopped by a Russian soldier. (Source: YouTube / Sott Media).

This incident raises questions regarding the Assad’s stature and relationship with the Russian ally. Putin was not only able to make unexpected visits to a Syrian airbase but also able to fully control the public narrative throughout the visit.

Slow-motion video footage of Assad being stopped by a Russian soldier. (Source: YouTube / Sott Media)

Speech

After congratulating the troops for their alleged victory against ISIS, Putin doubled down on the main message of the trip and announced that he ordered the withdrawal of a “significant part” of Russia’s forces from Syria after regaining control of most of the country. He also noted Russia would shift focus from ISIS on talks between the Syrian opposition and the government. According to Russian media outlets, Russian special forces, military police, sapper teams, and 25 aircraft will leave Syria, while the Reconciliation Center for Syria, Khmeimim Airbase, and Tartus navy supply point will continue full operations.

Conclusion

Based on past occurrences, the statements made by President Putin are found wanting for verification. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, there were no meaningful reductions in combat troops following Russia’s previous announcements of planned departures from Syria. The announcement was also divergent from the construction of a new Russian military base in Syria in the town of Khirbet Raes al-Waer, which @DFRLab also recently reported on.

Russian military bases in Syria provide the Kremlin with the leverage to exercise military power outside of Russia’s borders. Despite Putin’s peace promises, Russian troops in Syria will most likely continue active support of Assad’s fight against rebel forces.

@DFRLab will continue monitoring Russia’s military actions and developments in Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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