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CAIRO (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin declared "victory" in Syria during a surprise visit Monday to a military base there, then traveled to Egypt and Turkey, where he celebrated Moscow's deepening ties with those key regional powers.
The tour highlighted Russia's expanded reach in the Middle East and the global clout of its leader, who announced last week he is seeking re-election for another six-year term in March.
Speaking to Russian troops on the tarmac at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, Putin talked of the triumph over "terrorists" and announced a partial pullout of Russian troops.
"You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier — courage, valor, team spirit, decisiveness and excellent skills," he said in televised remarks to the troops. "The Motherland is proud of you."
Putin praised Russia's effort to help President Bashar Assad's forces to gain the upper hand over the Islamic State group and Syrian rebels.
"Here in Syria, far away from our borders, you helped the Syrian people to preserve their state and fend off attacks by terrorists," Putin said. "You have dealt a devastating blow to those who blatantly threatened our country. We will never forget about the victims who fell in the fight against terror both here and in Russia."
Putin also said that he had ordered the military to withdraw a "significant part" of the Russian contingent in Syria — although he has announced Russian troop withdrawals before.
"Friends, the Motherland is waiting for you," he said. "You are coming back home with victory!"
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the Russian commander in Syria, said the military will pull out 23 warplanes, two helicopter gunships, special forces units, military police and field engineers. The remaining forces will be sufficient to "successfully fulfill the tasks" to stabilize the situation in Syria, he said, but did not specify how many troops and weapons would remain.
The Pentagon expressed skepticism about the statements on the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Syria. Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Russian statements "do not often correspond" with actual troop reductions. He said the withdrawal comments will have no impact on the U.S. and coalition fight against Islamic State extremists.
It was Putin's first trip to Syria, where Russia began its air campaign in 2015. He has hosted Assad twice in the past six years, including an unannounced Nov. 21 visit by the longtime Russian ally to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Putin's whirlwind trip to Syria, Egypt and Turkey came at a time when leaders in the Middle East and beyond have criticized a decision last week by U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, upending decades of U.S. policy.
Speaking at a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Putin said the U.S. move "doesn't help the Mideast settlement and, just the other way round, destabilizes the already difficult situation in the region."
The decision might "finish prospects for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process," Putin said, standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin added that Moscow believes that the status of Jerusalem could only be settled through talks between the Palestinians and Israel in line with U.N. resolutions.
Russia's growing footprint in the Middle East extends beyond Syria and Egypt. King Salman of Saudi Arabia visited Putin in October as the two countries shook off decades of enmity and mutual suspicion.
During the Cold War, the Saudis helped arm Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invasion. More recently, tensions ran high over Russia's military help for Assad, whom Riyadh insists must go as part of any settlement in the Syria's civil war. The Saudis have since softened their opposition to Russia's role in Syria.
Putin is hoping his trip will stoke national pride among voters in the March 18 presidential election. With his approval ratings topping 80 percent, Putin is certain to win easily, but the Kremlin has been worried about growing voter apathy.
The successful military campaign in Syria and Moscow's growing clout in the Middle East would help burnish his image as a man who restored Russia's global power and prestige after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
In Egypt, Putin sought to strengthen his relationship with a key regional power that has in the past three years bought billions of dollars in Russian weapons and supported Moscow's intervention in Syria when others decried it.
"Russia always paid a special attention to expanding friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Egypt, our longtime reliable partner in the Middle East and North Africa," said Putin, on his second visit to Egypt in as many years, meeting with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
A general-turned-president, el-Sissi said the two countries had "a relationship with a long history," characterized by "strength and durability."
Neither made any mention of a deal drafted last month to allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases, perhaps because of the sensitivity in a country that says it had repeatedly rejected offers to base foreign forces on its territory.
That the agreement was not signed during Putin's visit could also mean differences remain over the issue.
For now, Russia has an air base and a naval supply facility in Syria, its only permanent military foothold outside Russia.
Egypt's ties with Russia date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo was a close ally at the height of the Cold War. Egypt changed sides in the 1970s under the late President Anwar Sadat, who replaced Moscow with Washington as his country's chief economic and military backer following the signing of a U.S.-sponsored peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Under el-Sissi, Egypt has maintained close ties with both Russia and the United States, which remains Egypt's main international backer, providing an estimated $1.3 billion in military and economic aid each year. Those ties suffered a blow in 2013, when the Obama administration criticized the military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected leader amid mass protests against his rule. Relations have improved under Trump, who also has sought better relations with Moscow.
With Putin and el-Sissi looking on, officials from both countries signed a deal for the construction of a nuclear reactor on Egypt's Mediterranean coast northwest of Cairo. Egypt has reached an agreement in principle to borrow $25 billion, or roughly 80 percent of the reactor's cost, from Russia. The signing ended months of wrangling over technical and financial details.
Putin may have disappointed el-Sissi during his visit when he once again delayed a decision on resuming flights to Egypt suspended two years ago when the Islamic State group downed a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. The suspension has decimated Egypt's vital tourism industry. Authorities have since spent millions of dollars to upgrade security at its airports, hoping to get Moscow to change its mind.
Putin praised those efforts, saying the two countries have come close to a deal to resume flights, but he did not give a timeline.
"Security agencies reported to me that we are generally ready to restore a direct air link between Moscow and Cairo," Putin said, adding that an agreement could be signed "in the nearest time."
Russian Transport Minister Maxi Sokolov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying flights between Moscow and Cairo could be restored in February. There was no immediate mention of restoring an air link to Sharm el-Sheikh, where the doomed Russian airliner took off.
In Turkey, Putin and Erdogan discussed developments in Syria and the Middle East, as well as bilateral relations, according to the Turkish president's office.
During their news conference, Erdogan said it was their eighth meeting this year and kept calling Putin, "My dear friend," in his statement. Putin also addressed Erdogan as a friend, emphasizing his role in helping negotiate peace settlement in Syria.
They regularly talk by telephone about Syria. Relations between the two countries were tense after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the border with Syria in November 2015, but they have restored ties and developed a close rapport on Syria, brokering a deal on safe zones that helped reduce fighting.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.