Russia 'begins to withdraw' military from war-torn Syria
Elements of Moscow’s military contingent to Syria began returning home, the RIA news agency reported, after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory against “terrorists” in the war-ravaged country.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the Russian military commander in Syria, said the military will pull out 23 warplanes, two helicopter gunships, special forces units, military police and field engineers.
Surovikin said the remaining forces will be sufficient to “successfully fulfill the tasks” to stabilise the situation in Syria, but did not say how many troops and weapons would stay behind.
However, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said such declarations made by Russia were not necessarily reflected by action.
“Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria,” he said.
A US official told AFP that Putin was likely to carry out a “token withdrawal” of some aircraft, then follow up by demanding the United States pulls its forces out of Syria.
It follows Putin’s surprise visit to the Hmeimim military airport - the first such trip to Syria - where Russia launched an air campaign in 2015 that allowed President Bashar Assad’s forces to gain the upper hand against Islamic State militants as well as Syrian rebels.
It was also the first visit by a foreign head of state to Syria since the civil war began in 2011.
In a televised speech to the Russian troops at the base, Putin hailed their “excellent” performance in Syria, where the Russian military declared victory against Daesh last week. “You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier – courage, valor, team spirit, decisiveness and excellent skills,” he said. “The motherland is proud of you.”
Putin also said that he had ordered the military to withdraw a “significant part” of the Russian contingent in Syria.
“Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Putin said. “You are coming back home with victory!” He added, however, that the Russian military will maintain its presence at Hmeimim and a naval facility in Tartous.
But the Russian military plans to modernise the air base and expand its runways to allow it to host more warplanes. It also intends to expand the Tartous facility significantly to make it a full-scale naval base capable of hosting warships, including cruiser-sized vessels.
Meanwhile, EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said the European Union was ready to do whatever was needed to support UN-brokered peace efforts, but warned that the idea that “things can go back to normal unfortunately has no real ground.”
A fresh round of Syrian peace talks is scheduled for next week in Astana, Kazakhstan, as part of a Moscow-led push to end the 6-year-old conflict, focusing on freeing prisoners, delivering humanitarian aid, de-escalation zones and other issues.
Russia launched its air campaign in Syria at the end of September 2015, when Assad’s government was teetering on the brink of collapse, and quickly changed the course of the conflict. Russian officials say the troops were sent to Syria mainly to fight “terrorists,” including IS and al-Qaeda, but they also battled mainstream rebels opposed to the Assad family’s four-decade rule.
Insurgents still control several areas in Syria, but much of the fighting has been paused by “de-escalation” agreements brokered by Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.
More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out with protests against Assad's rule in March 2011 which were met with a brutal crackdown.