Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses to the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Putin declares victory on visit to air base in Syria

Declaring a victory in Syria, Putin on Monday visited a Russian military air base in the country and announced a partial pullout of Russian forces from the Mideast nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory against “terrorists” in Syria on Monday during a surprise visit to a Russian military base in the county, where he also announced a partial pullout of Russian troops.

It was Putin’s first trip to Syria, where Russia launched an air campaign in 2015 that allowed President Bashar Assad’s forces to gain the upper hand against the Islamic State group as well as Syrian rebels. It was also the first visit by a foreign head of state to war-ravaged Syria since the civil war began in 2011.

Putin’s brief stop at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia while en route to Egypt came days after the Russian president said he would run for re-election on March 18, and helped to show off Moscow’s global clout to the national audience.

In a televised speech to the Russian troops at the base, Putin hailed their “excellent” performance in Syria, where the Russian military declared victory against the Islamic State group last week.

“You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier — courage, valour, team spirit, decisiveness and excellent skills,” he said. “The Motherland is proud of you.”

Related: Syrian mother gets behind the wheel

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. Russian officials say the troops were sent to Syria mainly to fight “terrorists,” including IS and al-Qaida, but they also battled mainstream rebels opposed to the Assad family’s four-decade rule.

Putin has hosted Assad twice in the past six years, including a surprise Nov. 21 visit that Assad undertook to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russian television stations showed Putin walking off the plane at the air base, embracing and shaking hands with Assad. The two then visited a military operations room.

The Hemeimeem base, located in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority, has served as the main foothold for the Russian military campaign in Syria.

“Here in Syria, far away from our borders, you helped the Syrian people to preserve their state and fend off attacks by terrorists,” Putin said, facing the troops lined up on the tarmac. “You have dealt a devastating blow to those who blatantly threatened our country. We will never forget about the victims who fell in the fight against terror both here and in Russia.”

Putin also 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. “You are coming back home with victory!”

He added, however, that the Russian military will maintain its presence at Hemeimeem and a naval facility in Tartus.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the Russian military commander in Syria, said the military will pull out 23 warplanes, two helicopter gunships, special forces units, military police and field engineers.

Surovikin said the remaining forces will be sufficient to “successfully fulfil the tasks” to stabilize the situation in Syria. He did not say how many troops and weapons would stay behind.

Syria has allowed Russia to use Hemeimeem air base indefinitely without cost. Moscow also has a deal with Syria to use the Tartus base for 49 years, which could be extended if both parties agree.

The Russian military plans to modernize the air base and expand its runways to allow it to host more warplanes. It also intends to expand the Tartus facility significantly to make it a full-scale naval base capable of hosting warships, including cruiser-sized vessels.

After seeing troops march, Putin drove up to the Russian warplanes parked on the runway and talked to the pilots, who said they will fly back home later in the day.

Syrian TV said Assad thanked Putin for his troops’ “effective contribution” to the fight against terrorism in Syria, which he said the Syrian people “will never forget.”

“Syria has been saved as a sovereign, independent state, refugees are coming home and conditions have been created for a political settlement under the United Nations’ auspices,” Putin said.

Insurgents still control several areas in Syria, but much of the fighting has been paused by “de-escalation” agreements brokered by Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

Putin told Assad he would discuss the prospects for a peace settlement with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey later Monday.

“I hope that together with Turkey and Iran we will succeed in restoring peaceful life and launch a political process to settle the situation in Syria,” Putin said.

___

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Come help celebrate 60 years at Nadina

Romeo Gourdeau may never have imagined that what he began 60 years… Continue reading

Downtown beautification plan moves forward

Council chooses contractor to develop the plan

First Nation pipeline protesters erect ‘tiny homes’ in B.C. Park

Kanahus Manuel and Tiny House Warriors say more homes being constructed in park

Hazelton’s Vickers creates Grateful Dead album cover

“Unbelievable, inspiring, grounding, and very exciting,” Roy Henry Vickers says of experience

France doubles up Croatia 4-2 to win World Cup

Played in Moscow Russia, latest Fifa World Cup marks the highest scoring final since 1966

REPLAY: B.C.’s best video this week

In case you missed it, here’s a look at replay-worthy highlights from across the province this week

Crews battle fire northeast of Terrace

The 10-hectare fire was discovered Saturday

Northern B.C. cadet goes from English Channel to BC Summer Games

Amber Ly is taking her experience aboard the tall ship Royalist with to Cowichan July 19-22

Intertidal Music Festival back for round two

More than 20 performances throughout the day at the North Pacific Cannery on July 21

Former NHL goalie Ray Emery drowns in Lake Ontario

Police say the 35-year-old’s death appears to be a ‘case of misadventure’

Air quality statement warns of smoky air for Kamloops area

Environment ministry says area on north side of Thompson River may be affected by wildfire smoke

Pussy Riot claims on-field protest at World Cup final

Russian protest group claimed responsibility after four people ran onto field in police uniforms

Fans party on Montreal streets after French World Cup win

To city is home to nearly 57,000 French nationals

B.C. VIEWS: Making private health care illegal again

Adrian Dix battles to maintain Cuba-style medical monopoly

Most Read