President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria during a surprise visit to the country.
Russia first intervened in the conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus, targeting Islamic State and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops.
“I order the defence minister and the chief of general staff to start withdrawing the Russian group of troops to their permanent bases,” Putin said in a televised speech as he visited Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in Syria.
“I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia.”
Putin, who was welcomed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the “most battle-ready group of international terrorists,” apparently referring to Islamic State.
“Our homeland thanks you, my friends,” Putin said. “Have a safe trip. I thank you for your service.”
Putin and Assad were pictured smiling and shaking hands.
Last month Putin said that efforts to end the war were entering a “new stage” as the focus shifted from military intervention to political reform.
On November 21, the military chiefs of Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to improve coordination in Syria, and discussed steps to “complete the elimination of the remaining Islamic State and Nusra Front formations,” and the mainly Kurdish YPG – part of the U.S.-led Coalition backed Syria Democratic Forces – has reportedly coordinated military operations with Russia since December 3, when it declared the eastern Syrian countryside of Deir Ezzor free from Islamic State alongside Russian military officials.
Putin made the stopover at the base in Latakia province, a regime stronghold, on his way to Egypt where he arrived later Monday. On November 28, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a directive approving a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt on the mutual use of airspace and airfields in both countries.
With reporting by AFP.