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Syria's Civil War: Go Inside Russia's Base in Latakia

If Russia's base in the heart of Syria exudes calm on the inside, Putin's mighty war machine still churns just outside the high walls.
Image: Russian servicemen prepare an SU-34 fighter
Russian servicemen prepare an SU-34 fighter jet for a mission from the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria on Wednesday.VASILY MAXIMOV / AFP - Getty Images

KHMEIMIM AIRBASE, Syria A "herbal bar" serves calming tea to soldiers as elevator music plays in the background.

Just outside, a miniature garden of stones offers airmen another chance to relax at this Russian airbase in northern Syria.

"Each stone has its own story,” said one soldier named Alexander as he lovingly swept a five-inch broom through the sand. “Some are long and some are rounded.”

Image: A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands
A Russian Sukhoi Su-35 bomber lands at the Russian Khmeimim military base on Wednesday.VASILY MAXIMOV / AFP - Getty Images

While the base in Syrian President Bashar Assad's stronghold of Latakia exudes calm on the inside, Vladimir Putin's mighty war machine still churns on the outside.

Sorties were still being launched amid talks to reach a ceasefire — though officials say the pace of the war has slowed.

“We’ve decreased the number of strikes by an order of magnitude,” Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told journalists over the roar of launching bombers on Wednesday.

Putin announced on March 15 that Russia's six-month mission supporting Assad's beleaguered government had "achieved its main objectives" and began pulling out forces. At the height of the campaign, the Russian Aerospace Forces were flying up to 100 missions per day in Syria. Now, the number rarely crosses into double digits, according to officials.

Assad's forces were teetering on the brink of defeat before the Russian intervention. Thanks to Russian support, they have since routed enemies and made territorial gains — like retaking the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS.

The West accused Russian forces of bombing civilian targets and focusing attacks on Assad’s moderate enemies, not jihadists, during the intervention.

Konashenkov has been busy for months dismissing these allegations as unfounded and on Wednesday told reporters on a Russian-organized military embed that Moscow's main focus in Syria now is reconciliation.

Russia says 92 localities and 52 armed groups in Syria have agreed to make peace with Assad’s government and lay down arms in exchange for governmental protection. NBC News was not able to independently confirm the numbers.

Dancing in the streets

About 75 miles away by road from the base in Latakia, celebrations were underway in the village of Kawkab.

The village of 1,000 is not far from the ruined city of Homs and saw dancing in the streets Wednesday after a reconciliation deal was inked with rebels.

"We've been waiting for this for two years," said Aboud, 68, a local resident who just returned to the village from a refugee camp.

He said that al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra had controlled Kawkab since 2014.

Aboud spoke to NBC News next to a table where pacified rebels, their faces hidden by scarves, laid down rusty Kalashnikovs in a formal ceremony.

But Russian soldiers in the crowd weren't watching the rebels. Instead, their eyes were trained on hills in the distance where still-active insurgents were reportedly lingering just 6 miles away.

Beyond the hills is a potentially bigger battle: the strategic northern city of Aleppo, once the commercial center of Syria but now a bombed-out shell as Assad’s forces and a motley crew of rebels fight for control.

Related: Airstrike on Aleppo Hospital Kills 14

Aleppo has witnessed a recent surge in bloodshed, shattering earlier attempts to establish a ceasefire.

On Wednesday, the U.N.'s political chief told an emergency meeting of the Security Council that the Syrian government's bombing campaign in Aleppo over the last two weeks is among "the worst" of the five-year war.

The Russian military denies any involvement in recent strikes on Aleppo — one of which hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.

"The building in question is intact, according to satellite photos," Konashenkov said when asked about the bombed medical facility.

As he spoke on the landing strip of Khmeimim airfield, grounded fighter jets behind him were being wheeled away for maintenance before they could resume flight.