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Putin Makes Surprise Visit To Syria, Orders Russian Withdrawal To Begin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 20.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a surprise visit to Syria and ordered the Russian military to start withdrawing its forces from the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation, Russian news agencies reported.

"I order the defense minister and the head of the general staff to begin the withdrawal of the Russian group of forces to their permanent places of deployment," state-run RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying in comments to servicemen at Russia's air base in Syria.

Putin met at the Hmeimim base with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the reports said.

Russia has given Assad's government crucial military backing the in the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since it began with a state crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Hmeimim military base in Latakia Province, Syria, in May 2016.
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Hmeimim military base in Latakia Province, Syria, in May 2016.

Russia began a campaign of air strikes in September 2015 and has stepped up its military involvement on the ground since then, protecting Assad from rebels -- some Western-backed -- and helping turn the tide of the conflict in his favor.

In March 2016, Putin ordered the start of "the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent” from Syria, but there were few signs of a pullout after that announcement.

Putin's surprise trip to Syria came as he is scheduled to visit Cairo and Ankara on December 11 for talks with his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts.

In announcing Putin's visit to Egypt, the Kremlin said on December 7 that he and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will discuss stability and security in the Middle East, among other things.

The Egyptian presidency said that Putin and Sisi will hold talks on “further advancing frameworks of bilateral cooperation across various areas, particularly political, economic, and trade relations."

Egypt’s official Al-Ahram newspaper reported that a final deal to build a nuclear plant in the North African country will be inked during Putin’s visit. An unidentified Russian official familiar with the matter said the long-awaited agreement was ready to be signed but that final approval will depend on top-level political discussions, according to Bloomberg.

In Turkey, Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plan to discuss bilateral issues, including joint energy projects, as well as the conflict in Syria and the broader situation in the Middle East, the Kremlin said.

Reuters cited unnamed sources close to Erdogan as saying the talks would address developments in Jerusalem -- a reference to the tensions and unrest following U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Egypt, Turkey, and Russia have all denounced Trump's decision. Putin and Erdogan voiced "serious concern" about it in a phone conversation on December 7, the Kremlin said.

Putin has courted closer ties with Egypt and NATO-member Turkey as well as other countries in the region in recent years.

Russia and Turkey back different sides in the Syria war and their relations were severely strained after Turkish jets shot a Russian warplane down near the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015.

But Putin and Erdogan say they have patched things up, and the upcoming meeting will be their third in as many months. Meeting in Ankara in September, they said they wanted to see progress on the TurkStream gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which is being built in Turkey with Russian collaboration.

Putin last visited Egypt in February 2015, and Sisi met with him in Moscow six months later.

The two presidents have had warm relations, but Russia suspended commercial flights to Egypt after a passenger plane carrying Russian vacationers back home from a Red Sea beach resort blew up over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, killing all 224 people on board. An affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) based in the Sinai claimed responsibility.

Russian and Egyptian officials have held talks on boosting airport security and resuming air travel, but no deal has been reached so far.

Putin’s visit to Cairo comes less than two weeks after the Russian government announced that Moscow and Cairo had drafted an agreement to allow each country's military to use the other's air bases.

On a visit to Cairo on November 29, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu praised what he called the "positive dynamics in the military-technical sphere" and emphasized the need to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism.

With reporting by RIA Novosti, Interfax, Bloomberg, Reuters, dpa, and TASS