Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that he is ordering the withdrawal of the majority of Russian troops from Syria, stating that the six-month military intervention has largely achieved its objectives.
Putin reportedly ordered Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to start the pullout of Russian military on Tuesday, March 15, withdrawing the “main part” of its forces. Russia will continue to keep a military presence at the naval port of Tartus and at the Khmeimim airbase in order to observe ceasefire agreements.
“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow,” Putin said during a meeting with Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, as reported by Russia Today.
“In a short period of time Russia has created a small but very effective military group [in Syria]… the effective work of our military allowed the peace process to begin,” Putin continued, noting that with the assistance of the Russian forces “Syrian government troops and patriotic forces have changed the situation in the fight with international terrorism and have ceased the initiative.”
The news was relayed personally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a telephone conversation between him and Putin on Monday evening. Russia is a key ally to the Syrian government, and Putin claimed he coordinated the withdrawal with Assad.
The Russian news and broadcasting agency TASS tallied what it claims are the total number of Russian air forces operating in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia also has a small ground contingent along with special forces protecting them, as well as an unspecified number of Russian advisers operating with the Syrian military.
“The Russian air group in Syria comprises more than 50 warplanes and helicopters, including Su-34 and Su-24M bombers, Su-25 attack aircraft, Su-30SM fighters and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. Air strikes have been delivered at military hardware, communications centers, transport vehicles, munitions depots and other terrorist infrastructure facilities.”
Though Putin did not specify the number of troops and planes withdrawing, CBS News reported Syrian state television, quoting Assad as saying Russian forces would withdraw “in line with the situation on the ground and the continuation of the cessation of hostilities.” Assad also said the Russian intervention assured “victories against terrorism and returned security to the country.”
This abrupt move by Russia is clearly meant to coincide with the start of United Nations-brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at bringing an end to the civil war in Syria, which has cost over 250,000 lives, displaced millions more and is set to enter its sixth year on Tuesday. Western diplomatic sources remain skeptical of Putin’s motives regarding the unexpected move.
“We will have to wait and see what this represents. It is Putin. He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialised,” a diplomat from the talks in Geneva said, according to The Guardian.
The Syrian opposition cautiously welcomed the announcement of the Russian withdrawal.
“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the [peace] talks a positive push,” Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition umbrella group, said to the BBC.
Members of the Syrian opposition have previously accused the Russian campaign of indiscriminate bombing attacks and civilian casualties, which Russian officials have repeatedly denied.
Russian military intervention into the Syrian Civil War began on September 30, 2015, in response from a request from the Syrian government for aid against rebels and Islamic jihadist forces, including al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Russian Air Force has since turned the tide of the war in favor of President Assad.
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