Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to a Russian base in Syria and ordered his troops to start withdrawing from the war-torn country.
Syrian state TV reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Putin at Khmeimim Air Base, southeast of Latakia, on Monday morning.
Russia’s state news agency Novosti cited Putin as saying that “in general, the combat work in this territory is completed by the complete eradication of terrorists”.
Putin made the stop in Syria on his way to Egypt, where he met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi later on Monday.
As the Syrian government’s main ally in the war, Russia started its intervention in September 2015, after an official request by the Syrian government for military help against rebel groups.
Since then, Russia mainly conducted air strikes against groups opposed to the government, including the Syrian National Coalition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front, and others.
In addition, Russian military advisors and special operations forces are stationed in Syria. Prior to the intervention, Russian involvement in the war had mainly consisted of supplying the Syrian army.
In November, Assad thanked Putin for “saving” his country and for Russia’s support in Syria.
The two heads of state met for talks in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 22 to discuss the fight against “terrorism” and the possibilities for a political settlement in Syria, which has entered its seventh year of war.
After the meeting, Assad in a statement expressed his readiness to hold discussions with parties interested in resolving the conflict.
In response, Putin commended Assad’s cooperation.
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Meanwhile, a new round of Syria talks will begin next week in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.
The announcement on Monday comes a month after various factions, including the Syrian government and opposition groups, met in Astana to discuss the implementation of a lasting ceasefire agreement.
International initiatives to end the war over the years include an attempt at establishing four “de-escalation zones” across the country, with Russia, Turkey and Iran acting as guarantors.
The new two-day round, which will begin on December 21, will focus on the freeing of prisoners, the de-escalation zones and humanitarian aid, according to Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry.
To date, some 465,000 people have died in the conflict, and more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced.