By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin flew into Syria and ordered "a significant part" of Moscow's military contingent there to start withdrawing on Monday, declaring their work largely done.
Putin, who polls show will be re-elected comfortably in March, made the announcement during a surprise visit to Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria - his first since Russia intervened in the conflict. He held talks with President Bashar al-Assad and addressed Russian forces.
The first leg in a three-country one-day whirlwind diplomatic visit which sees Putin also meeting his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts, Putin is keen to leverage the heightened Middle East influence that Syria has given him to cast himself as a leader who can do diplomacy as well as military force.
The Kremlin first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor. Now that it regards that mission complete, Putin wants to help broker a peace deal.
"In just over two years, Russia's armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists," Putin told Russian servicemen.
A "significant part" of the Russian force could now return home. "The conditions for a political solution under the auspices of the United Nations have been created," said Putin. "The Motherland awaits you."
Washington was skeptical about Putin's statement.
"Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect U.S. priorities in Syria," said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon.
Putin made clear in any case that Russia would retain enough firepower to destroy any possible Islamic State comeback.
Syrian state television quoted Assad as thanking Putin for Russia's help, saying the blood of Moscow's "martyrs" had been mixed with the blood of the Syrian army. It also showed the two men watching what it called a victory parade with Russian troops dressed in desert uniforms marching past.
Russia's main contribution has been air strikes, and with Iran-backed Shi’ite militias doing much of the fighting on the ground, the partial Russian withdrawal may not make a huge difference when it comes to the military situation.
Russia's campaign, which has been extensively covered on state TV at home, has not caught the imagination of most Russians. But nor has it stirred unease of the kind the Soviet Union faced with its calamitous 1980s Afghanistan intervention.
The use of private military contractors, something which has been documented by Reuters but denied by the defense ministry, has allowed Moscow to keep the public casualty toll fairly low.
Officially, less than 50 Russian service personnel have been killed in the campaign, but the real number, including private contractors, is estimated to be much higher.
Russia's "mission accomplished" moment in Syria may help Putin increase the turnout at the March presidential election by appealing to the patriotism of voters.
Though polls show he will easily win, they also show that some Russians are increasingly apathetic about politics, and Putin's supporters are keen to get him re-elected on a big turnout, which in their eyes confers legitimacy.
Putin, who with the help of state TV has dominated Russia's political landscape for the last 17 years, told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors.
Speaking in front of a row of servicemen holding Russian flags, Putin said his military had proved its might and that Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a "sovereign independent state."
"I congratulate you!" Putin told the servicemen.
Putin is keen to organize a special event in Russia - the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue - that Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and opposition and try to hammer out a new constitution.
When asked about Putin's announcement, Yahya Aridi, spokesman for the Syrian opposition in Geneva, said it welcomed any step that brought Syria closer to real peace.
Putin made clear however that while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria was a permanent one and that it would retain enough firepower to destroy any Islamic State comeback.
Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province and its naval facility in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous "on a permanent basis," said Putin.
Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.
Putin was told by the military that it had begun withdrawing 25 aircraft, a detachment of Russian military police, a detachment of Russian special forces, a military field hospital and a de-mining center.
However, Russia has announced partial force draw-downs before only to later bring in different capabilities.
"We've seen such announcements before, which turn about to be less significant than they might have initially appeared," said one European diplomat who declined to be named.
"The most significant contribution Russia can make to advancing peace in Syria is to pressure the Assad regime to engage seriously in Geneva (peace talks). Absent that, the suspicion will be that this announcement may have more to do with Russian politics than the Syrian situation."
(Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow, Beirut newsroom and Tom Perry, Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)