Drawing a stark contrast between himself and his counterpart in the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise appearance at Khmeimim Airbase in Syria – which has traditionally been used by the Russian air force – on Monday morning, where he ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, now that the ISIS insurgency that once controlled roughly one-third of the country’s land area has been effectively dismantled.
The Russian president was met by his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu at the airbase. Russian forces fighting with the Syrian Army during the country’s civil war were stationed at the base. Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops to begin immediately, according to Russia Today.
“I order the defense minister and chief of the general staff to start the withdrawal of Russian troops to the site of their permanent deployment,” Putin said, speaking to a crowd of Russian soldiers. The Russian leader said that during the span of two years, the Russian and Syrian militaries have “defeated the most battle-hardened grouping of international terrorists,” adding that he’s decided a significant portion of the Russian troop contingent should return to Russia.
Putin warned that if ISIS tries to “rear their heads” in Syria again, Russia will retaliate with a level of force that “they have never seen before.” The Russian leader added that the conditions for a political settlement under the auspices of the United Nations had been created in Syria, and that refugees were returning home.
Putin was told that about 70,000 square kilometers (about 43,500 square miles) of Syrian territory has been liberated and 32,000 terrorists killed in the last seven months of the operation. Russian special forces, military police and 25 aircraft will leave Syria, and a field hospital will be removed, according to the commander of the Russian forces in Syria, Colonel-General Sergey Surovikin.
The Russian president said that the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria would continue its work, and that Russia would continue to use the Khmeimim Airbase and the Syrian port of Tartus, which provides technical support for the Russian Navy.
Putin is now headed to Cairo, where he is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
It’s worth noting that Putin’s decision to withdrawal Russian personnel stands in stark contrast to the US, which appears to be moving toward a semi-permanent air presence in the battle-torn, Iran-allied country.
Last month, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that the US is preparing for a long term military commitment in Syria to fight ISIS “as long as they want to fight.” Mattis indicated that even should ISIS loose all of its territory there would still be a dangerous insurgency that could morph into an “ISIS 2.0” which he said the US would seek to prevent. “The enemy hasn’t declared that they’re done with the area yet, so we’ll keep fighting as long as they want to fight,” Mattis said. “We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has traction.”