By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Ostroukh
MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin ordered “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent in Syria to start withdrawing on Monday, saying Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of destroying Islamic State in just over two years.
Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria, where he held talks with President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.
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 Assad’s favor, while dramatically increasing Moscow’s own influence in the region.
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 MOTHERLAND AWAITS’
Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for the last 17 years with the help of state television, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.
“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,” said Putin.
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…