Russia will keep bases in Syria to strike at insurgents: Kremlin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will keep a naval and an air base in Syria capable of carrying out strikes against insurgents if required after a partial military pull-out announced by President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

Putin on Monday ordered “a significant part” of Moscow’s military contingent to start pulling out of Syria, declaring their work largely done.

Putin made the announcement during a surprise visit to the Russian Hmeymim air base, where he met President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.

“Thanks to the fact that the operation to save Syria and the liberation of Syrian land from terrorists have been completed, there is no longer a need for broad-scale combat strength,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

But he added that Russia would keep the Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province and its naval facility in the port of Tartous.

“The President stressed that the terrorists might try to ‘walk tall’ again in Syria. If that happens, crushing blows will be carried out,” Peskov said.

Russia’s military operation in Syria, which began in September 2015, turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Moscow’s ally, Assad. It also established Russia as a power broker in the Middle East, regaining a role it had relinquished after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Assad’s opponents, Western governments and some human rights organizations alleged that Russian air strikes on Syria had killed large numbers of civilians. Moscow has denied the allegation.

The Kremlin has presented the partial withdrawal of its forces as evidence that its mission in Syria has been largely accomplished. That gives a boost to Putin as he launches his campaign for re-election.

Opinion polls show that he will comfortably win the presidential election, scheduled for March. But the Kremlin fears that, since some voters see the election as a foregone conclusion, they may not turn out, weakening Putin’s mandate.

Russia had previously announced a partial drawdown of its forces in Syria, in March last year. However, a powerful Russian contingent remained in place and there was little sign of operations being scaled back.

Back home in Russia, many people consider the Syrian mission a successful operation to restore peace - as well as an opportunity for Moscow to flex its military muscles.

The official death for Russian forces killed in combat is 38, according to a Reuters tally. That is far below the level of losses sustained when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, the last time Moscow waged a major campaign far beyond its borders.

However, many of the losses in Syria were borne by private military contractors working with the Russian military whose deaths have not been officially acknowledged, according to friends, relatives and colleagues of the contractors.

The Russian defense ministry denies that there are any Russian contractors in Syria.

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Jack Stubbs and Christian Lowe; Editing by Richard Balmforth