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Putin Orders Partial Russia Troop Withdrawal from Syria

Russian soldiers march during a rehearsal of the Victory Day Parade at the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province Syria May 2016. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/File)
Russian soldiers march during a rehearsal of the Victory Day Parade at the Hmeimim military base in Latakia province Syria May 2016. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Ankara Monday for the last leg of a frantic day-long diplomatic dash during which he made his first visit to Syria and ordered the partial withdrawal of Russia's troops from the war-torn country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Putin at his presidential complex in Ankara for a closed-door meeting.

This is the eighth face-to-face meeting between Putin and Erdogan this year, a sign of the intensity of a relationship that had hit rock bottom in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian war plane over Syria.

Putin was welcomed earlier in the day at Russia's Hmeimim airbase by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a surprise stopover.

In a televised speech to Russian troops, Putin said he had ordered his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to start a partial withdrawal.

"I have taken a decision: a significant part of the Russian troop contingent located in Syria is returning home to Russia," he said at the base in Latakia province, a government stronghold.

Russia first intervened in the conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Assad targeting both the Islamic State group (IS) and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops.

Putin said the troops had helped the Syrian army crush the "most battle-ready group of international terrorists," apparently referring to IS.

"On the whole the task has been completed. And completed brilliantly."

'Our homeland thanks you

Putin said last month that efforts to end the war were entering a "new stage" as the focus shifted from military intervention to political reforms.

He said both Hmeimim and Russia's naval facility in Tartus would continue to function and warned that Russia would repel any fresh attacks by militants.

"If terrorists rear their heads again we will inflict the blows that they have not seen yet," he said.

Putin made the Syria stopover, the first by a Russian head of state since then president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010, en route to Egypt where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Ankara's prime foes in recent years.

The Kremlin strongman thanked the troops for defending Russia from terrorism and helping Syria remain a "sovereign independent state".

He said the conflict proved that Russia's armed forces, including intelligence officers, pilots, sailors, special forces, military police, sappers and military advisers, were on top form, and he also praised the country's defense industry.

"Our homeland thanks you, my friends," he said. "Have a safe trip. I thank you for your service."

Putin also inspected the troops who goose-stepped to the tune of a popular Soviet-era song about World War II, and held talks with Assad.

'Deep gratitude'

Assad expressed his "deep gratitude" for Russia's role in the conflict.

"The Syrians will never forget what the Russian forces did," official Syria media quoted him as saying.

Putin said he would discuss Russia's efforts to convene Syria's political congress with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey, and then brief Assad.

While Turkey has backed the anti-regime opposition and Russia along with Iran is the main international supporter of Damascus, Putin and Erdogan have worked closely to resolve the Syrian conflict in recent months.

Ankara officially remains opposed to Assad staying in power in any transition but has notably toned down its rhetoric against the Syrian leader in recent months.

The Kremlin last week said the meeting in Turkey would be a chance to discuss "above all the progress of joint projects in energy", in what appeared to be a reference to the TurkStream gas pipeline project and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkey.

Pentagon scepticism

Last week Putin announced he would be standing in the March presidential election that he is expected to effortlessly win, and his lightning visit to Syria can be expected to play well with the voters.

The commander of Russia's forces in Syria, Sergei Surovikin, said 23 Russian planes, two helicopters and military police would be returning to Russia soon, national television reported.

The first jets were scheduled to leave Monday.

The Pentagon voiced scepticism about Putin's announcement, saying such declarations were not necessarily reflected by action.

"Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria," Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said.

The size of the Russian deployment in Syria is not known but independent Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has told AFP that up to 10,000 troops and private contractors could have taken part in the conflict.

Putin had ruled out dispatching ground forces in Syria, making the air force the mainstay of Moscow's Syria campaign.

Around 40 Russian servicemen have reportedly been killed in Syria since Moscow's intervention. The Kremlin has acknowledged some of those deaths.

But the losses may be higher given the number of Russian troops and mercenaries believed to be in the country, observers say.

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.

This article was written by Raziye Akkoc and Anna SMOLCHENKO in Moscow from Agence France Presse and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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