Russia Says Forces Have Begun Drawdown In Syria
March 15, 2016
Russian has begun the withdrawal of military assets from Syria following an order by President Vladimir Putin, according to statements by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Russian media showed the first group of Su-34 strike fighters returning to a Russian air base near Voronezh on March 15 and being greeted by Air Force commander General Viktor Bondaryov. Earlier, Russian state television showed three Su-34s taking off from Russia's air base in Syria.
But Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said at a ceremony honoring the departing pilots that remaining Russian forces in Syria still 'have the task of continuing to strike terrorist targets,' including the militant group Islamic State (IS) and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, as well as other UN-designated terrorist groups.
Pankov suggested it would be premature to speak in terms of a victory over terrorism.
The move comes more than five months after Moscow began its aerial bombing campaign in Syria, declaring its aims as bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and 'fighting international terrorism.'
On March 14, Putin announced Russia would be withdrawing most of its forces from Syria and said the objectives of the operation had been 'generally accomplished.'
Putin's order came as internationally brokered talks began in Geneva in a bid to reach a political resolution to Syria's civil war. Those talks were resuming for a second day on March 15.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin will not speculate on future actions in Syria, adding that 'the main task today is to comprehensively assist a peace settlement.'
Russia has been conducting air strikes in Syria since September 30. Moscow says it has been targeting terrorists, including IS. But Western countries counter that Russia has spent much of its effort attacking anti-Assad forces, some of whom are supported by the United States and its allies in an effort to see Assad removed from power.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council's Defense Committee, said Moscow will keep about 1,000 military personnel at its two bases in Syria. He said some 800 troops are required to secure the naval base at Tartus and the Hmeimim air base in Latakia Province. In addition, air crews will remain to conduct reconnaissance missions.
The United States estimates there were between 3,000 and 6,000 Russian troops in Syria before the beginning of the current drawdown. It is estimated Russia has stationed some 50 jets and helicopters at Hmeimim. Russia has also deployed the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system at the base.
The United Nations envoy on the Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura, issued a statement saying he hopes Moscow's decision 'will have a positive impact on the progress of negotiations.'
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that 'if the announcement of a withdrawal of Russian forces materializes, this increases the pressure on President Assad to finally negotiate in a serious way.'
A spokesman for the representative organ of the main Syrian opposition groups, the High Negotiations Committee, told reporters in Geneva that 'we must verify the nature of this decision and its meaning.'
Assad's office reported that he and Putin had spoken by telephone on March 14 and had agreed on the plan to reduce Russia's presence in Syria. The statement said the decision reflected the 'successes' that have been achieved in combating terrorism and regaining government control over key areas of the country.
Russian State Duma deputy Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Twitter that Russia's operations 'alone have created conditions for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations in Syria.'
With reporting by RFE/RL's Current Time, AP, Interfax, and TASS
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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