By Pete Cobus
MOSCOW - 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.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina commented on the announcement on Twitter.
"I found someone who is supportive of the decision to retreat from #Syria," tweeted Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in a post that linked to a Russian embassy statement of support for Trump's decision.
Some Moscow-based military experts, however, aren't so sure that a U.S. military withdrawal immediately benefits Russia.
"I think Putin must be satisfied, and maybe – but I wouldn't insist – in the future, he will commend this event as a victory for Russia, perhaps," said Alexey Malashenko of the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.
But, he added, "if indeed American troops leave from Syria, [Russia] will have to present more explanation for its presence there."
For years, Malashenko said, Kremlin officials have taken to Russia's tightly controlled domestic news media platforms to demonize American military aggression in the region, describing it as a necessary justification for Russia's own military presence.
"For Putin, I believe, the American existence on Syrian territory was somehow comfortable or maybe convenient, but now he must replace or change his explanation for Russia's role there," he said.
Malashenko added, "I can't be sure, because I'm not a close observer of Trump, but I believe that some part of the American military will stay. We know this from the recent examples in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and so on."
When asked if a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria would pose a significant domestic political victory for Putin, whose approval ratings are at a historic low, he was skeptical.
"That it would appear Putin has decisively defeated U.S. interests in Syria? I doubt it," he told VOA. "Indeed, if Putin considers a U.S. withdrawal his personal victory or a Russian success, he could have explained that even today at his press conference. But I think that Putin is not sure whether he considers it a victory."
Military 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.