On a brief and surprise stopover, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin landed in Khmeimim airbase in Syria’s Latakia early on Monday.
Addressing Russian troops before him on the tarmac, an upbeat and triumphant Putin claimed military victory in the war-torn country and announced that a “significant part” of the deployed force could now return home.
It was the first visit to Syria by a Russian head of state since 2010. Yet, the declaration wasn’t the first of its kind.
In March 2016, Putin had similarly announced a pullout of “the main part” of his soldiers, who have been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015. In the months that followed, however, Moscow ramped up its military presence once again, before declaring a similar “scaling down” at the end of last year.
As in both of those instances, Putin said on Monday that Russia’s Khmeimim airbase and Tartus naval facility would continue their normal operations.
This led many to downplay the military significance of the Russian president’s latest declaration.
“This is not a withdrawal, since Russia is keeping its air and naval bases,” George Alam, a political analyst in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“And Putin did say, ‘if terrorists come back, we will strike them’. So that means Russia’s military strength is still present in Syria.”
US troops in Syria
Alam said Putin’s orders may have a different aim: to send a strong message to the US.
Describing the decision as “political”, Alam said it was Russia’s way of asking the “international community to pressure the US to withdraw its troops from Syria”.
He added: “Russia is bothered by what it sees as the illegal presence of US troops.”
Last week, the Pentagon disclosed that there are about 2,000 US soldiers in Syria, four times as many as it had been publicly acknowledged before.
Army Colonel Rob Manning, Pentagon spokesman, said US troops would remain in Syria, even as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group nears its end.
“The United States will sustain a conditions-based military presence in Syria to combat the threat of insurgent-led insurgency, prevent the resurgence of ISIS and to stabilize liberated areas,” he said.
The Syrian government, however, has accused Washington of coming up with excuses to maintain a presence in the mainly Kurdish-controlled northeast.
Last month, Jim Mattis, the US secretary of defence, had also said his country “won’t just walk away” from its efforts in Syria.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said that the US had found itself “marginalised” on the diplomatic front, and a military presence would give it “more leverage in future negotiations” on Syria’s future.
Over the past year, UN-sponsored Syria talks in Geneva have been increasingly overshadowed by a separate process in the Kazakh capital of Astana led by Turkey – which supports some rebels groups – and Russia and Iran, both allies of Assad.
“Russia is pushing for a separate peace process to that of the United Nations,” said Khodr.
“It is hoping to host what is known as the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue that will bring together the Syrian government and the opposition early next year.”
Saying that a “new stage” had been achieved in Syria’s crisis, Putin said last month that the proposed congress “will look at the key questions on Syria’s national agenda”.
“First of all, that is the drawing-up of a framework for the future structure of the state, the adoption of a new constitution, and, on the basis of that, the holding of elections under United Nations supervision,” he told reporters after a meeting with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
‘Message to Iran’
Russia began its Syrian intervention in September 2015, after the Syrian government appealed for military help against rebel groups.
The military deployment helped turn the tide in favour of Assad’s ailing forces. Russia’s air campaign, however, has been blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.
The number of Russian soldiers in Syria is not known, but US estimates have previously suggested it varies from 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel on the ground. An independent Russian military expert recently told AFP news agency that as many as 10,000 soldiers and private contractors could have participated in the war.
In November, Assad thanked Putin for his support and for “saving” his country.
Elie Hajj, a political analyst, said Putin’s order for a partial withdrawal was also a message to his own ally, Iran, amid pressure by the US and Israel to curb Tehran’s influence in the region.
“The message to Iran is that there is no need for you to stay permanently in Syria … there is no need to further expand your presence,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The big military operations are over and it is time for a political solution.”
Reporting by Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr