Putin orders partial Russian withdrawal from Syria during surprise visit
Declaring a victory in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday visited a Russian military airbase in the country and announced a partial pull-out of Russian forces from the Middle East nation.
Putin’s visit marks his first trip to Syria, drawing a symbolic line under the campaign that has shored up President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
It was also the first visit by a foreign head of state to the war-ravaged country since its bloodletting started nearly seven years ago.
Putin’s brief stop at the Hemeimeem airbase in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia while on his way to Egypt came days after the Russian president declared his bid to run for re-election in the March 18 vote, helping encourage the feelings of pride about Russia’s revived global clout and prestige.
It also follows the Russian announcement last week that the Syrian army under Russian air cover routed Islamic State in eastern Syria and fully restored control over the border with Iraq.
In a televised speech to troops at the base, the Russian leader hailed their valour.
“You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier,” Putin said.
The Hemeimeem base, in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority, has served as the main foothold for the Russian military campaign in Syria.
In a speech to the troops, Putin said that he had ordered the military to withdraw a “significant part” of the Russian contingent in Syria.
“Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Putin said.
He also warned that “if the terrorists again raise their heads, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen”.
Russian television stations showed Putin walking off the plane, embracing and shaking hands with Assad at the airbase.
Putin said that the Russian military will maintain its presence at Hemeimeem airbase and the naval facility in Tartus.
Syrian television said Assad thanked Putin for his troops’ effective contribution to the fight against terrorism in his country.
Russia launched its air campaign in Syria at the end of September 2015 when Assad’s government was teetering on the brink of collapse and quickly changed the course of the conflict in its favour.
After arriving in Egypt, Putin met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo for talks on cooperation and tensions in the Middle East following Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Putin’s visit reflects growing ties between Russia and Egypt, the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.
Putin and Sisi were expected to sign bilateral agreements, including one for Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant, and to discuss the resumption of Russian flights to Egypt as soon as possible, a presidential spokesman told MENA state news agency.
Moscow stopped civilian air traffic to Egypt in 2015 after militants bombed a Russian Metrojet flight leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 people onboard.
Additional reporting by Reuters