Vladimir Putin had his own “Mission Accomplished” moment for Syria. In a surprise visit to Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia Province, the Russian president declared that the two-year mission of “assistance” had enabled the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to stabilize itself and regain control of a good portion of the country’s territory. A significant—but unspecified—number of the Russian expeditionary forces can now return home, having accomplished their purpose and enterprise.
The location where Putin chose to deliver his remarks was quite significant. Hmeimim is now a Russian facility, which, along with the upgraded naval base at Tartus, marks the restoration of Russia’s strategic reach in the Middle East. It may soon be joined with other facilities in Egypt and Libya, depending on the success Russian diplomats will have in obtaining access rights in those countries.
The style and tone of Putin’s address was also meant to convey a message to the broader Middle East. Like U.S. presidents, Putin chose the backdrop of a military facility to convey his statement—and one cannot help but draw comparisons with similar remarks by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But the subtext of Putin’s message was that where the United States had overreached (as in Iraq in 2003) or hesitated to act (as in Syria in 2013) Russia succeeded in undertaking a limited, defined mission—and seems to have succeeded at it, despite all the predictions that Russia was about to repeat its ill-fated Afghan experience. A judicious, focused use of power appears to have turned the tide, not only in saving Assad from falling but in restoring his control over most of Syria. Moscow can say, with some accuracy, that Russia honors its commitments, fulfills its promises and defends its friends.