Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in a new year’s greeting that Russia will continue supporting Syria’s efforts to defend its sovereignty, the Kremlin said on Saturday.
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Putin stressed that Russia would “continue to render every assistance to Syria in the protection of state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, in the promotion of a political settlement process, as well as in efforts to restore the national economy,” the Kremlin said.
Earlier this month Putin ordered the Russian forces in Syria to start withdrawing from the country, but said Russia would keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartous “on a permanent basis.”
Russia first launched airstrikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor.
Dozens of Syrian militants and their families departed aboard buses from an area besieged by government forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights early Saturday, part of a deal to clear yet another district of insurgents.
The evacuations came as government-controlled media said two mass graves were discovered in the northern province of Raqqa where the Islamic State group held sway for more than three years.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said 153 people, including 106 fighters, left the village of Beit Jin early Saturday toward the southern province of Daraa.
The evacuation allows the government to reassert control over Beit Jin near the Golan Heights that were captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel has publicly warned against the accumulation of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces at its border. Iran has arranged for thousands of militiamen from across the region to fight on behalf of Assad's government and has sent top commanders to direct its own Revolutionary Guards in the country as well.