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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Putin orders withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria 

The Russian president's order for a 'significant part' of Moscow's forces to start withdrawing came as he visited the Hmeimim airbase in Syria's Latakia province

President Vladimir Putin meets with Russian servicemen at the Hmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province on December 11, 2017. Michael Klimentyev / Pool / Kremlin / Sputnik / EPA
President Vladimir Putin meets with Russian servicemen at the Hmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province on December 11, 2017. Michael Klimentyev / Pool / Kremlin / Sputnik / EPA

Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a "significant part" of Moscow's forces in Syria to start withdrawing on Monday, as he held surprise talks with president Bashar Al Assad on a visit to Russia's Syrian airbase.

The visit to the Hmeimim base in Latakia province marked Mr Putin's first trip to Syria and comes as Mr Al Assad's forces have retaken control of most of Syria under Russian air cover.

“You are returning with victory to your native homes, to your relatives, parents, wives, children, friends," Mr Putin said in an address to Russian troops at the base that was broadcast on state television. “The motherland is waiting for you.”

The base has served as the main launch pad for the air campaign that Russia has waged since September 2015 in support of Mr Al Assad.

Mr Putin's order for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria comes a week after the Russian ministry of defence said it had defeated ISIL and that there were no remaining enclaves left in Syria under the extremists' control.

The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Mr Al Assad's favour. Now that it regards that mission complete, Mr Putin wants to help broker a peace deal.

Washington, however, was sceptical about Mr Putin's announcement on Monday.

"Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria," said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.

Mr Putin made the stop in Syria on his way to meet Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi for talks in Cairo. He later flew to Ankara to meet with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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During their meeting, Mr El Sisi and Mr Putin discussed Syria and their mutual rejection of US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that has triggered protests across the region and from European capitals.

"We had a detailed exchange of views on key international issues. Our approaches either coincide completely or are really quite close," Mr Putin said.

The Kremlin announced, prior to the meeting, that Mr Putin would discuss with Mr El Sisi expanding political, economic, energy and trade ties. The Egyptian government meanwhile said Mr Putin's visit would reflect the shared commitment to "strengthening the historic and strategic relations" between Moscow and Cairo.

Mr Putin's visit to Egypt follows the Russian government's announcement last week that Moscow and Cairo have drafted an agreement for Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases.

However, neither leader mentioned the Russian government's release last month of a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt that would allow the two countries to use each other's air space and airbases for their military planes.

After his meeting with Mr El Sisi, the Russian president met with Mr Erdogan in Ankara and held talks on stability and security in the Middle East.

The talks also focused on the current situation in Syria and the US's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Russia, Turkey and Egypt have all denounced the US move, which was announced by president Donald Trump on Wednesday last week.

On Thursday, the day after Mr Trump's announcement, Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan voiced “serious concerns” about the matter in a telephone conversation.

“Such steps can thwart all prospects for the Middle East peace process,” the Kremlin said following the call.

It added that Russia and Turkey reaffirmed their commitment to "achieving a just and viable solution to the Middle East crisis based, above all, on the relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, as well as the realisation of the Palestinian people’s right to their own state".

Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan's meeting on Monday was their eighth this year. Their last meeting was held in the Russian resort of Sochi in late November, alongside their Iranian counterpart, president Hassan Rouhani.

Geneva peace talks

Meanwhile, Syrian regime representatives held talks with UN mediator Staffan de Mistura on Monday in Geneva as part of UN-brokered peace talks.

Mr de Mistura convened an eighth round of UN-brokered talks between Syrian government and opposition delegations on November 28, with discussions aimed at focusing on post-war constitutional reforms as well as elections.

Headed by Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Al Jaafari, the regime delegation is set to stay in Geneva until December 15, but missed out on several days of talks after first arriving to the Swiss city late and then leaving in protest on December 2 over the opposition's insistence on the absence of Mr Al Assad from any future transition period.

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Read more: Syrian government delegation returns to Geneva after a week off

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The opposition also held talks with UN special envoy, calling for direct negotiations with the regime and saying that "the only way to make Syria safe is through a political solution".

Yahya Al Aridi, the spokesperson for the unified opposition delegation, said: "We want Syria to be safe for our people to come home. Any step that will contribute to that is welcome, especially removing foreign militias".

Also on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said ISIL extremists had been driven out of Syria's Idlib province, two days after making an incursion into the region bordering Turkey.

ISIL fighters captured the Idlib village of Bashkun over the weekend after clashes with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an alliance of rebel forces dominated by a former Al Qaeda affiliate.

"After fierce fighting, Tahrir Al Sham has once again chased IS out of Idlib," the Observatory said.

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