By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is voicing skepticism about Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a major withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria and is arguing that his declaration of victory against Islamic State was premature.
Putin, during a surprise visit on Monday to Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria, declared that the work of Russian forces was largely done in backing the Syrian government against militants in the country's war following the defeat of "the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists."
Still, U.S. officials are challenging the Russian and Syrian portrayal of Syria as a country poised for peace once the final enclaves of the Islamic State militant group, known as ISIS, are recaptured.
Syrian government forces, U.S. officials said, are too few, too poor and too weak to secure the country. Islamic State, and other militants in Syria, have ample opportunity to regroup, especially if the political grievances that drove the conflict remain unresolved, the officials said.
"We think the Russian declarations of ISIS' defeat are premature," a White House National Security Council spokeswoman said. "We have repeatedly seen in recent history that a premature declaration of victory was followed by a failure to consolidate military gains, stabilize the situation, and create the conditions that prevent terrorists from reemerging".
The U.S. military in Syria, which unlike the Russians are operating there without the blessing of Damascus, has long been skeptical of Moscow's announced drawdowns.
Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States had not observed any significant withdrawal since Putin's announcement.
Although he did not predict future moves, he said: "There have been no meaningful reductions in combat troops following Russia's previous announcements planned departures from Syria."
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Moscow's past announcements of pullouts led to a recalibration of Russian forces.
"Russia has previously used claims of partial withdrawals in order to rotate out select units for refit-and-repair, remove redundant capabilities, and reinsert alternative weapons systems better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations," it wrote in a research note on Tuesday.
The U.S. military still has around 2,000 troops in Syria and has announced that any withdrawal will be conditions-based, arguing a longer-term presence of American forces would be needed to ensure Islamic State's lasting defeat.
Russia's announcement, however, suggested a different image of Syria in which foreign forces were becoming unnecessary. After turning the tide of the conflict in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor, Putin wants to help broker a peace deal.
A senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the United States believed Assad would fail if he attempts to impose "victor's peace."
The odds of Syria breaking into a civil war again would be high without meaningful political reconciliation, the official said.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday stressed the importance of a roadmap for peace, including elections that would allow voting by Syrians overseas who fled to the conflict.
"And it is our belief that through that process, the Assad regime will no longer be part of that leadership," Tillerson said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Editing by Grant McCool)