Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday gave the order for a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria during a visit to the country’s airbase there.
“I order the defense minister and the chief of general staff to start withdrawing the Russian group of troops to their permanent bases,” Putin said as he visited Hmeimim airbase, the RIA Novosti news agency reported. “I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia.”
Hmeimim airbase is in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite territory. The visit marked Putin’s first trip to Syria and came as Assad’s forces retook control over most of the country with the help of Russian air cover.
Putin, who was welcomed by Assad, said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the “most battle-ready group of international terrorists,” apparently referring to the Islamic State group.
“Our homeland thanks you, my friends,” he said. “Have a safe trip. I thank you for your service.”
Russia began its bombing raids in September 2015 in support of Assad’s beleaguered forces. Those strikes have helped Assad regain control over much of war-ravaged Syria.
The airbase served as the main foothold for the air campaign.
Last week Russia said it had accomplished its goal of defeating the Islamic State group in Syria.
“The Russian armed forces’ goal to defeat armed groups of the ISIL terrorist organization in Syria has been accomplished,” said senior military officer Sergei Rudskoi, using an alternative acronym for the group.
“There is not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL. The territory of Syria has been completely liberated from fighters of this terrorist organization,” he told reporters.
There has been an “unprecedented” involvement by Russia’s air force in recent days, he said, with warplanes making 100 sorties and staging up to 250 strikes daily.
Last month, Putin said efforts to end the war were entering a “new stage” as the focus shifts from military intervention to political reform.
More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.