Putin’s Advances in Syria

The Kremlin solidifies its strategic gains for backing Assad.


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria, June 27.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria, June 27. PHOTO: SANA/REUTERS

Vladimir Putin confirmed Sunday that he is expelling 755 U.S. diplomats from Russia in retaliation for new sanctions passed last week by Congress. But a more important thumb in the eye of the Trump Administration came last week as Mr. Putin moved to consolidate Russia’s strategic gains in Syria.

On Wednesday Mr. Putin ratified a 49-year lease on Hmeymim air base, near the coastal Syrian town of Latakia. Russia has used the base since 2015 to launch operations to defend Bashar Assad’s forces, attack U.S.-backed rebels and provide cover for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps operations inside the country.

Russia bases a variety of offensive and defensive capabilities at Hmeymim, including Sukhoi SU-35 fighters, attack helicopters and, occasionally, advanced reconnaissance aircraft that fly in from Russia and land for refueling. The base is also home to a contingent of Russian troops and advanced S-300 air defense systems of the type that Moscow sold to Tehran and pose a potential threat to U.S. and NATO aircraft flying missions in the region. 

Mr. Putin’s long-term lease solidifies his position as the primary defender of the Assad regime and sends a message to regional allies that it plans to remain even after the defeat of Islamic State around Raqqa. Russia’s other long-term Syrian lease is for the naval base at Tartus, where Moscow bases destroyers, frigates, submarines, minesweepers and other ships.

The solidified Russian presence shows the naivete of Barack Obama’s 2015 claim that Mr. Putin was entering “a quagmire” in Syria. Mr. Obama’s abdication in Syria created the opening for Mr. Putin to intervene. But it should also be a dose of reality to President Trump’s hopes that Russia will cooperate to stabilize Syria by working out a diplomatic solution. The only solution Mr. Putin wants is a victory for Mr. Assad, Iran and the Kremlin.

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