Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for a surprise White House decision to pull 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, calling their presence there illegitimate and an impediment to peace in the region.
Addressing a record 1,700 journalists at his 14th annual end-of-year marathon press conference Thursday, Putin said he agreed with President Donald Trump’s assessment that Islamic State had largely been defeated on the ground in Syria.
“Donald is right, I agree with him [about that],” he said, stating that radical militants still holding small parts of northern Syria had suffered at least a “serious blow” over the past year.
“I don’t think the [U.S. forces] are needed there,” Putin said. “And let’s not forget that the presence of [U.S.] troops there is illegitimate. The U.S. is there without backing from the United Nations or an invitation from the Syrian government. Russia is there at the invitation of the Syrian government. But if the U.S. has decided to withdraw, that’s good.”
The U.S. has justified its military presence in Syria to combat the Islamic State as part of its global war on terrorism.
Putin then expressed skepticism about whether the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will actually happen.
“We don’t yet see any signs yet of the withdrawal of U.S. troops,” he said. “And how long has the U.S. been in Afghanistan? 17 years? And almost every year they say they’re pulling out their troops.”
On Wednesday, Russian state media outlets reported that Russia’s Foreign Ministry called a prospective U.S. withdrawal auspicious for a political settlement of the seven-year-old crisis.
The ministry also said an initiative to form a Syrian constitutional committee had better prospects for success without a U.S. presence in the region.
Fueling Trump’s critics
The Kremlin’s reception of Wednesday’s White House announcement provided rhetorical ammunition to U.S. critics of Trump’s decision, which even a few of Trump’s congressional allies called chaotic and misguided.
“Withdrawal of this small American force in Syria would be a huge Obama-like mistake,” tweeted Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“I found someone who is supportive of the decision to retreat from #Syria,” tweeted Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a post that linked to a Russian embassy statement of support for Trump’s decision.
“[Trump] is sliding another big gift under Vladimir Putin’s Christmas tree,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
Analysts say up to 30,000 IS militants remain active in Iraq and Syria, and that Trump’s decision appears to have been made without the support or knowledge of top Pentagon officials.