Putin orders 'significant part' of Russian forces in Syria to withdraw

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Russian air base in Hmeimim, in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia, on Dec 11, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Russian air base in Hmeimim, in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia, on Dec 11, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - President Vladimir Putin Monday (Dec 11) ordered "a significant part" of Russia's military contingent in Syria to start withdrawing, saying Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in just over two years.

Mr Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria, where he held talks with President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.

He made the brief visit Monday while on his way to Egypt and then on to Turkey.

The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015, in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Mr Assad's favour while dramatically increasing Moscow's own influence in the region.

Syrian state television quoted Mr Assad as thanking Mr Putin for Russia's help, saying the blood of Moscow's "martyrs" had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army.

Moscow's campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s intervention in Afghanistan.

The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the Defence Ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.

Russia's "mission completed" moment in Syria may help Mr Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.

Mr Putin, who has dominated Russia's political landscape for the past 17 years, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.

"The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that it was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part been solved, and solved spectacularly," said Mr Putin.

Speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Mr Putin said his military had proved its might, that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a "sovereign independent state" and that the conditions had been created for a political solution.

Mr Putin is keen to organise a special event in Russia - the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue - that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new Constitution for the country.

He made clear that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any comeback by ISIS.

Later on Monday, Mr Putin arrived in Egypt to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, where both leaders signed the final deal for a four-reactor nuclear power plant, which could cost up to US$21 billion (S$28.4 billion). Construction of the Dabaa plant is expected to finish in 2028-2029.

While in Cairo, Mr Putin called for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to resume, including on Jerusalem, following the controversial US decision to recognise the city as Israel's capital.

Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would discuss a possible political resolution to Syria's more than six-year-old war when they met later on Monday in Ankara, as well as preparations for the work of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue.