President Vladimir Putin has yet again announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, and this time, it may just be the truth.
Standing at the Hmeymim air base in the coastal Syrian province of Latakia on Monday with defense minister Sergey Shoygu by his side, Putin said that Russian and Syrian armies had achieved their mission to defeat ISIS.
Marking his first trip to Syria, Putin declared Syrian and Russian forces would respond with strikes if “terrorists raise their heads” in the war-torn country now heading into the seventh year of a civil war.
“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,” Putin said, speaking to Russian military personnel at the base. “I congratulate you. You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier.”
In the televised speech, Putin said he had ordered the military to withdraw a “significant part” of the Russian forces in Syria.
“Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” he said. “If the terrorists again raise their heads, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen.”
In addition, he announced that that Russia would permanently keep its airbase in Latakia, and its naval base at Tartous.
This may have been Putin’s first trip to the country, but it isn’t the first time he has mentioned reducing the Russian military footprint in Syria.
Putin’s first “drawdown” was announced in March 2016, when Putin announced “the task that was assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces as a whole has achieved its goal” of fighting terrorism. Some Russian warplanes subsequently left Hmeymim air base.
In January, Putin announced Russia would pull back some of its forces in Syria. The announcement coincided with a Russian naval aircraft carrier group leaving the Mediterranean in a spectacle considered largely by experts as symbolic.
Just days later, Fox News reported that Russia had deployed four additional attack aircraft to its sole coastal Syrian airbase.
In July, Russia extended its lease of the air base for 49 years, giving Moscow some military presence in the nation for several decades.
But Putin’s statement Monday may be more likely to result in actual troop reductions than any of the previous announcements. That’s because ISIS has largely been defeated in Syria.
The declaration also has a political dimension back in Russia, as Putin is eager to declare a military victory after he announced last week that he will seek reelection in 2018.