Vladimir Putin makes triumphant visit to Syria airbase

Vladimir Putin has declared mission accomplished for Russian forces in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, as he made a surprise visit to the Russian airbase in the country.

“Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Putin told the Russian air force detachment based at the Khmeimim airbase during his visit on Monday morning. “You are coming back home with victory.”

Earlier this month, the head of the Russian army said Syria had been entirely liberated from Isis forces.

Putin said a significant part of Russian forces would be withdrawn from Syria, though scepticism was warranted given that two previous announcements have been met with little noticeable scaling down.

This time, however, could be different. Talk of the total defeat of Isis may be premature, but there is no doubt that Russian air power, combined with Syrian forces and Iran-backed Shia militias on the ground, has decisively shifted the balance of power in the long Syrian civil war.

President Bashar al-Assad was on the brink of defeat when Russia entered the conflict in 2015. With sustained airstrikes on both moderate rebel groups and extremists, Moscow has helped Assad win back control of much of the country. The Russian and Syrian air forces were accused of brutal bombing tactics, including deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, which the Russian military has always denied.

Assad’s departure from office, long demanded by western powers, is no longer on the immediate agenda. Russia hopes to convene a peace conference that would cement its status as a new power broker in the Middle East, bypassing the US.

“Syria has been saved as a sovereign, independent state, refugees are coming home and conditions have been created for a political settlement under the United Nations’ auspices,” Putin said on Monday.

Assad, who met Putin at the airbase, thanked the Russian president for his country’s effective contribution to the fighting and said the Syrian people would never forget Russia’s help, according to Syrian television.

The timing of the visit may also be linked to events in Russia. With a presidential election coming up in March, Putin is keen to portray the Syria mission as a success and reassure Russians that its forces will not get bogged down in the conflict.

Casualties have been hushed up by Russian news outlets, as has the presence of private military contractors closely linked to the Russian state, often operating much closer to the front lines than Russia’s official advisory role would suggest.

Putin said Russia would retain a contingent of forces at the Khmeimim airbase, located alongside a civilian airport in the coastal city of Latakia.

“As you can see, we’re here for a long time,” the Russian army’s spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said during a trip for journalists to the base in September. The facility features barracks, a modern canteen and even a makeshift Russian Orthodox church.

Putin later flew from Syria to Egypt, where he met president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Cairo. The two leaders discussed the political situation in the Middle East and bilateral nuclear cooperation. Russia’s state nuclear company said it would build a plant at Dabaa that will cost up to $21bn (£16bn) and take a decade to complete.

There was no immediate announcement, however, about the resumption of direct flights between the two countries, which were suspended after Isis claimed responsibility for downing a passenger jet carrying Russian tourists after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh two years ago. The suspension of flights has been disastrous for Egypt’s tourism industry.