Russian forces have started leaving Syria after Monday’s surprise withdrawal announcement by President Vladimir Putin.
Russian defence ministry video showed the first group of aircraft taking off from Hmeimim air base in Syria on Tuesday morning and later in flight. But Russia will continue air strikes, and keep several hundred personnel and air defence systems, officials said.
Peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict are entering a second day. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is mediating in the talks, welcomed the Russian decision. “The announcement by President Putin on the very day of the beginning of this round of Intra-Syrian Talks in Geneva is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations,” he said.
The Russian force reduction was announced during a meeting between Mr Putin and his defence and foreign ministers. Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his office sought to reject speculation there was a rift between the two countries, saying the move was mutually agreed.
The Russian air campaign started last September, tipping the balance in favour of the Syrian government and allowing it to recapture territory from rebels, but on Tuesday the defence ministry announced the withdrawal. “The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” it said in a statement (in Russian).
Aircraft from the base would make the flight to Russia – more than 5,000km – in small groups each led by Il-76 or Tu-154 transport planes, the statement said. They would then go their separate ways to their own bases after crossing the Russian border, it added.
Su-24 tactical bombers, Su-25 attack fighters, Su-34 strike fighters and helicopters were returning home, the TV said. Mr Putin, however, said Hmeimim and Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartous would continue to operate as normal. Deputy Defence Minister Nikolay Pankov said some air strikes would continue. “Certain positive results have been achieved… However, it is too early to talk about victory over terrorism. A Russian air group has the task of continuing to strike terrorist facilities,” he said, quoted by Ria news agency.
Russia’s military intervention bolstered president Assad’s forces on key front lines where they were close to collapse. Russia now wants to see an end to this war – and it is known to be concerned about the Syrian government’s tough line on talks which have just resumed in Geneva, as well as president Assad’s recent comments in an interview that he would one day take back, militarily, all the territory he lost. That is not a war president Mr Putin can afford to be part of. And he has a bigger game here – his wider relationship with the West and most of all Washington which is also anxious to find a way out of this crisis in Syria – as hard as that is.
Another senior official, Federation Council defence committee head Viktor Ozerov, said as many as two battalions – some 800 servicemen – could remain in Syria after the withdrawal to guard the two bases, Interfax news agency reported. Military advisers training Syrian government troops would also stay, he added.
Meanwhile Kremlin chief-of-staff Sergey Ivanov said Russia would keep its advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system in place. “We are leaving completely reliable cover for the remaining contingent… To effectively ensure security, including from the air, we need the most modern air defence systems,” Russian media quoted him as saying. It is not clear how many military personnel Russia has deployed, but US estimates suggest the number ranges from 3,000 to 6,000, AP reports.
Russia had long insisted its bombing campaign only targeted terrorist groups but Western powers had complained the raids hit political opponents of President Assad. In a statement, the Syrian government said the plan was agreed between the two countries.