MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered "a significant part" of Russian forces in Syria to start withdrawing, saying that after a two year military campaign, Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying Islamic State.
Putin made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province where he held talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and addressed Russian military servicemen.
This was Putin's first trip to Syria, as well as the first visit by a foreign head of state to war-ravaged Syria since its bloodletting started nearly seven years ago.
Russia first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor while dramatically increasing Moscow's own influence in the Middle East.
Russian officials say troops in Syria were there mainly to fight "terrorists" including militants of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida affiliates, but they also heavily targeted other rebel factions opposed to Assad, allowing his troops to claw back significant territory over the past two years.
Putin has hosted Assad twice in the past six years, including a surprise November 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 at the base.
The Hemeimeem base, located in a region that is 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."
Syrian state television quoted Assad as thanking Putin for Russia's help, saying the blood of Moscow's "martyrs" had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army.
Russia's campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s intervention in Afghanistan.
The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the defense ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.
Russia's "mission completed" moment in Syria may help Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.
Though polls show he will easily win, they also show that some Russians are increasingly apathetic about politics, and Putin's supporters are keen to get him re-elected on a big turnout, which in their eyes confers legitimacy.
"The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that it was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part, been solved and solved spectacularly," Putin said, in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
Wearing a dark suit and speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Putin said his military had proved its might, that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a "sovereign independent state" and that the conditions had been created for a political solution.
Putin is keen to organize a special event in Russia—the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue—that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new constitution.
"I congratulate you!" Putin told Russian servicemen gathered at the base.
"A significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home, to Russia. The Motherland is waiting for you."
Putin made clear however that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any Islamic State comeback.
"If the terrorists again raise their heads, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen," he said.
Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province and its naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous "on a permanent basis," said Putin. Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the Russian military commander in Syria, reported to Putin that the military will pull out 23 warplanes, two helicopter gunships, special forces units, military police and field engineers.
Surovikin said that the remaining forces will be sufficient to "successfully fulfill the tasks" to stabilize the situation in Syria. He wouldn't say how many troops and weapons would stay behind.
Syria has allowed Russia to use Hemeimeem air base indefinitely without cost. Moscow also has signed 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 to the tunes of military marches, Putin drove up to the Russian warplanes parked on the runway and talked to the pilots, who said they will flew back home later in the day.
Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan would discuss a possible political resolution to Syria's more than six-year-old war when they met later on Monday in Ankara, as well as preparations for the work of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.