- Video report by ITV News International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar
Vladimir Putin has announced the withdrawal of a “significant” number of Russian troops from Syria during a surprise visit to a military airbase in the country.
Ahead of the announcement, the Russian President met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Hemeimeem base in the coastal province of Latakia, the main foothold for Russia’s campaign in the war-ravaged nation.
Russia began its air campaign in Syria in September 2015 and helped turn the tide in the country’s civil war in Mr Assad’s favour at a moment when the president’s forces appeared on the brink of defeat.
Moscow says its campaign has targeted “terrorists”, including militants fighting for so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.
But strikes have also been reported against rebel fighters and civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims Russian airstrikes have killed 6,328 civilians in the country, including 1,537 children.
Speaking to troops at the base on his first trip to Syria, Mr Putin said: “You helped the Syrian people to preserve their state and fend off attacks by terrorists.
“You have dealt a devastating blow to those who blatantly threatened our country.”
Mr Putin added that “if the terrorist again raise their head, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen”.
The Russian military will maintain its presence at Hemeimeem and the naval facility at Tartus, with the remaining forces sufficient to “successfully fulfil” the task of stabilising Syria.
With the help of Russian airstrikes, pro-government forces have won key victories, including in Aleppo, and retaken control of most of Syria.
Last week, Russia announced that the Syrian army had routed so-called Islamic State in eastern Syria and fully restored control over the border with Iraq.