President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Syria on Monday and ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the war-torn country, saying their task had been largely completed.
Putin, who announced last week he would seek a fourth term in a poll in March, was welcomed at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the surprise stopover.
The two men were pictured smiling and hugging, with Putin hailing a “significant result of our joint work”.
In a televised speech to Russian troops, Putin said he had ordered his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to start a partial withdrawal.
“I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia,” he said in a televised speech at the base in Latakia province, a government stronghold.
Russia first intervened in the conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both the Islamic State group (IS) and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops.
Putin said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the “most battle-ready group of international terrorists,” apparently referring to IS.
“On the whole the task has been completed. And completed brilliantly.”
Putin said last month that efforts to end the war were entering a “new stage” as the focus shifted from military intervention to political reforms.
He said both Hmeimim and Russia’s naval facility in Tartus would continue to function and warned that Russia would repel any fresh attacks by militants.
“If terrorists rear their heads again we will inflict the blows that they have not seen yet,” he said.
– ‘Our homeland thanks you’ –
Putin made the Syria stopover, the first by a Russian head of state since then president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010, en route to Egypt where he arrived later Monday.
From there, Putin is scheduled to travel to Turkey for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Kremlin strongman thanked the troops for defending Russia from terrorism and helping Syria remain a “sovereign independent state”.
He said the conflict proved that Russia’s armed forces, including intelligence officers, pilots, sailors, special forces, military police, sappers and military advisers, were on top form, and he also praised the country’s defence industry.
“Our homeland thanks you, my friends,” he said.
“Have a safe trip. I thank you for your service.”