MOSCOW -Xinhua/UNS — Russia will pull most of its troops out of Syria after claiming a victory against the Islamic State (IS) but will maintain an airbase and a naval base in the war-torn country, President Vladimir Putin announced Monday.
During a surprise visit to the Hmeymim military airfield in Syria, Putin gave the order for a “significant” pullback of Russian troops, saying in the past two years, the Russian armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most lethal group of international terrorists.
Thanking Russian servicemen who took part in the anti-terrorist operations in Syria, where the Russian air force task group has been deployed since the end of September 2015, he said, “We will never forget about the sacrifices and losses during the fight against terror, both here in Syria and in Russia.”
The Russian troops will return home to relatives, parents, wives, children and friends with a victory, he added.
However, Russia will keep two military bases in Syria, the Hmeymim airbase and the Tartus naval base.
“If terrorists raise their heads again, we will deal them such blows they have not yet seen,” Putin said.
In January, Syria signed a deal with Russia, allowing the latter to use the Hmeymim airbase in the coastal province of Latakia for at least 49 years.
Russian warplanes stationed in the airbase flew numerous sorties in the past two years, destroying IS arms depots, equipment and personnel. They also provided air cover for Russian long-range strategic bombers during intensive airstrikes in recent weeks.
The Tartus port in northwestern Syria, established in 1977, is currently Russia’s sole support facility in the Mediterranean.
Also in a January deal, Syria allowed Russia to keep its naval facility in Tartus for at least 49 years and agreed to expand and overhaul the maintenance infrastructure there.
The deal allows Russia to deploy up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered combat vessels, in the Tartus base.
Russia started to participate in the anti-terrorist operations in Syria in September 2015 and began gradually reducing its military presence after brokering a nationwide truce among the warring factions in the Middle East country at the end of 2016.
In a symbolic move, Moscow withdrew its sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in January, leaving air forces to back Syrian government troops.
Last month, Putin told visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Russian military operations in Syria were coming to an end, and the focus would shift to a political process.
A day after the surprise meeting with Assad, Putin hosted a summit with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts and they agreed to start a political process to end the six-year civil war in Syria.
The three countries are preparing for a Syrian National Dialogue Congress. Seven rounds of Syrian talks have already been held in the Kazakh capital of Astana, a parallel process to the Geneva negotiations sponsored by the United Nations.
Putin is currently on a Middle East tour to coordinate positions with Syria, Egypt and Turkey.