President Vladimir Putin ordered that all the Russian warplanes and troops that stationed at Russia’s air base in Syria to leave for home. This is a step that raises hopes for progress at the newly peace talks in Geneva.
The U.N. envoy for Syria called this announcement a “significant development”. Later on, Staffan de Mistura said that his team hoped the Russian drawdown would have a “positive impact” on the negotiations that aim to find a political solution to the Syrian war and “a peaceful political transition in the country.”
Putin announced this withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria just a few hours after de Mistura had reconvened indirect peace talks between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and those of the opposition.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said that a group of Su-34 bombers was the first to leave, accompanied by a military transport aircraft. The planes were said to be making stops at airfields in Russia for refueling and some technical checks, because some of them stationed more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away from the Syria base.
On the Russian state television was showed a video of three warplanes taking off and flying behind a larger transport aircraft. A correspondent who was at the base reported that a second group has had already set off for home. Moreover, a third one was getting ready to do just the same.
However, Putin did not specify how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn. Russia has not yet revealed how many soldiers it has deployed to Syria, where it maintains both a naval facility and an air base. Meanwhile, the U.S. estimates a number of Russian military personnel between 3,000 and 6,000.
Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its Hemeimeem air base, in Syria’s province of Latakia.
Dmitry Peskov (Putin’s spokesman) refused to comment on whether the bombing will stop completely or not, but he noted that the number of sorties had already dropped by two-thirds since the cease-fire took place on February 27th.
Viktor Ozerov (the head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament) said that he estimated that about 1,000 Russian military personnel would remain in Syria at the two bases.
Moreover, he added that Russia would need a minimum of two battalions, a total of 800 troops in order to protect those two bases. Russia would continue to conduct air reconnaissance, requiring some of the plane crews to remain, and the military specialists advising the Syrian army to stay, too.
He also said that the long-rage S-400 air defense missiles are going to be kept at the base. Russia deployed the powerful system in November, after Turkey downed a Russian jet along the Syrian border.
Putin had an opportune moment to declare an official end to the five and a half month Russian air campaign, at the start of the negotiations in Switzerland. This allowed Assad’s army to win back some ground and strengthen his position ahead of the talks.
Moreover, he said that the Russian air campaign has allowed Assad’s military to “radically” turn the tide of war while also helping create conditions for peace talks.
As Russia has its main goals in Syria achieved, the pullback will now allow Putin to pose as a peacemaker and help ease tensions with NATO member Turkey and the Gulf monarchies vexed by Moscow’s military action.
In addition to this, Putin made it clear that Russia will maintain its air base and a naval facility in Syria, while also keeping some troops there. Syria’s state news agency quoted Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent, but won’t leave the country altogether.
The Syrian presidency mentioned that Assad and Putin spoke on the phone and agreed that Russia would scale back its forces in Syria. It rejected speculation that the decision reflected a rift between the allies and said that the decision reflected the “successes” that the two armies have achieved in fighting terrorism in Syria and restoring peace to key areas of the country.
It seems that they agreed that the Russian bombing campaign “have brought about a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria, throwing their infrastructure into disarray and causing them substantial damage”.
Moreover, they agreed that the operations “made it possible to put in place conditions for starting a peace process under UN aegis”.
“Russia’s military has fulfilled their main mission in Syria.” Said Putin
The Syrian army then said that it would continue its operations against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and other militant functions in Syria that have been designated as terrorist groups by the U.N.
Whether Russia’s decision is truly a sign towards peace or a strategic action, we can’t say, yet. However, time will figure everything out while we hope for the best.
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