Russia starts withdrawing air force deployed in Syria

Russia starts withdrawing air force deployed in Syria

MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
Russia starts withdrawing air force deployed in Syria

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura speaks during a press conference in Geneva on March 14, 2016 on the first day of the second round of Syrian peace talks at the UN headquarter. AFP Photo

The first of Moscow’s warplanes landed back in Russia from Syria on March 15 at the start of a surprise withdrawal that Western governments hope could boost United Nations-brokered peace talks ongoing in Geneva by pressuring the Syrian government.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura described the pullout as a “significant development” for peace negotiations.

“We hope [this] will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations [in Geneva],” he said in a statement on March 15, the fifth anniversary of the start of the war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 14 ordered the “main part” of Russia’s forces out of the war-torn nation, but the Kremlin denied it was trying to pressure its long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia will, however, keep a contingent at its air and naval bases in Syria and a senior official said strikes against “terrorists” would continue.

One al-Qaeda-linked group, the al-Nusra Front, branded the withdrawal a “defeat” and vowed to launch a new offensive in Syria.

Putin said March 14 that Moscow’s military goal had been “on the whole” completed some five-and-a-half months and 9,000 combat sorties after the Kremlin launched its bombing campaign in support of Assad.
State media broadcast live footage of flag-waving crowds greeting returning pilots at a military base in southwest Russia as a brass band played.

“It is still too early to speak of victory over terrorism. The Russian air group has a task of continuing to strike terrorist targets,” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies at Moscow’s Hmeimim base in Syria.

The West reacted cautiously, since Moscow is yet to specify a timeframe for completing the withdrawal and a Kremlin official said Russia would keep advanced air defense systems in Syria.

Some governments expressed hope the Russian move could push al-Assad to negotiate, but in Geneva both sides remained locked in a bitter dispute over his fate.

The talks opened after a temporary cease-fire between al-Assad’s forces and opponents was introduced on Feb. 27 and has largely held, although it does not cover the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Nusra Front.

De Mistura was expected to hold his first official meeting March 15 with the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which has repeatedly said al-Assad cannot be part of Syria’s political future.

Damascus sparked Western anger by staking out an uncompromising stance before the talks, insisting that discussions on al-Assad’s removal were a “red line” they would not cross.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the Kremlin was angered by al-Assad’s perceived inflexibility.

But in February, Russia was unusually critical of al-Assad after he vowed in an interview with AFP to retake the whole country, saying his stance was “not in accord” with Moscow’s diplomatic efforts.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a Russian withdrawal “increases the pressure” on al-Assad to negotiate, while France’s Foreign Ministry said “anything that helps towards a de-escalation in Syria should be encouraged.” 

Moscow has pledged to ratchet up its own diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions since March 2011.

The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama had spoken to Putin following Russia’s announcement, and discussed the “next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities.”

But U.S. officials offered a cautious initial assessment.

“At this point, we are going to see how things play out over the next few days,” a senior administration official told AFP.

The foreign minister of Iran – which controls thousands of troops supporting al-Assad on the ground in Syria – said Russia’s withdrawal showed Moscow did not “see an imminent need [to] resort to force in maintaining the cease-fire.”

Meanwhile, Russian helicopters pounded jihadist positions around the ancient city of Palmyra on March 15 as Syrian troops pressed a ground advance, the Syrian Observatory for Human Right said.  

“Russian helicopters and warplanes, that are likely Russian, are bombarding Islamic State [ISIL] group positions near Palmyra,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.