Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday he has ordered his military to withdraw a “significant part” of Russia’s forces from Syria.
He made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia’s Hemeimeem airbase in Latakia province, where he also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian forces joined the Syrian conflict in late 2015 in support of Assad’s military.
Putin said Monday that Russian and Syrian forces had defeated the “most battle-ready group of international terrorists,” in an apparent reference to the Islamic State group.
Syrian state media said Assad thanked Putin for Russia’s role in the fight against terrorism in Syria and that the Syrian people will not forget what the Russian military achieved.
Russia plans to keep Hemeimeem airbase as well as a naval facility in Tartus.
The visit to Syria was Putin’s first, and came on his way to talks to Cairo.
Russia’s intervention in Syria helped stabilize Assad’s effort to defeat rebels who have fought since 2011 to force him from power. The conflict started as peaceful protests that were met with a strong government crackdown and eventually led to a civil war that also included the emergence of the Islamic State group in large areas of eastern Syria.
Forces opposing Islamic State have made large gains during the past year in both Iraq and Syria, including pushing the militants out of their major strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. The United States has led its own coalition of militaries providing airstrikes and other support to fighters on the ground in both countries.
Multiple efforts to bring about productive peace talks to end the fighting in Syria have proven unsuccessful as millions of people fled their homes. The latest attempt at finding a negotiated peace is going on in Geneva, led by the United Nations.