MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday opened a surprise visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, announcing a drawdown in Russian forces shortly after his administration declared victory in its intervention in the Syria war.
In his first visit to the air base since Russian warplanes secretly flew to Syria in late 2015, Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to begin the “withdrawal of Russian troop contingents” to their permanent bases.
But Putin left open the door to a further Russian presence in Syria, saying that both Russia’s air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus would keep operating. He promised further strikes in the future “if terrorists raise their head again” — an apparent reference to forces in Syria’s long civil war that sought to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We will deliver such strikes on them that they have not seen yet,” he said in remarks to military personnel at the air base.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Assad’s government and gave Syrian forces a critical edge against rebel factions backed by the West and its Middle East allies. Iran, another key supporter of Assad, provided military advisers and other aid.