Russia forces have begun packing up equipment and supplies in Syria, the defence ministry announced on Tuesday, a day after President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly ordered the majority of Russian forces withdraw from the war-torn country.
"Technicians at the airbase have begun preparing aircraft for long-range flights to airbases in the Russian Federation," the defence ministry said in a statement.
The move came after Putin ordered the “main part” of Russian troops in Syria to withdraw on Monday night at a meeting in the Kremlin with his defence and foreign ministers. He said they had largely fulfilled their objectives and ordered an intensification of Russia's diplomatic efforts to broker a peace deal in the country.
But Putin said that a Russian military presence would remain in Syria: at the key port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim airbase (click on link for photos from inside the air base from Russian state-owned Sputnik News). The Russian leader did not give a deadline for the completion of the withdrawal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned Assad to inform him of the Russian decision. The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks between the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
"Assad noted the professionalism, courage and heroism of the officers of the Russian armed forces that took part in the military operations and expressed deep appreciation to Russia," the Kremlin statement said.
The surprise announcement came with no advance warning to the United States.
Western diplomats are speculating that Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the five-year civil war which has killed 250,000 people.
Military campaign set ‘conditions for peace process’
The statement announcing the start of the Russian withdrawal also noted that Moscow’s military intervention had created the conditions necessary for a peace process to proceed.
"I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military... the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects," Putin said.
Russia began its bombing campaign in support of Assad's forces in September, a move that helped shore up the Syrian regime's crumbling forces and go on the offensive.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Washington was encouraged by Putin’s announcement but that it was too early to say what it means, whether he will carry it out, and what may have motivated it.
A temporary ceasefire in the country introduced on February 27 has largely held, despite accusations of violations from both sides, allowing aid to reach some 150,000 people living under siege.
The UN Security Council commended the decision as a positive step, the body’s president said on Monday.
The council discussed the surprise Russian announcement during a closed-door meeting, when it also heard a report from UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on a new round of peace talks that opened in Geneva.
“The decision just announced today by the Russian president — that’s a positive step,” said Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, who holds the council’s rotating presidency this month.
But Syrian rebels and opposition officials alike reacted sceptically.
“I don’t understand the Russian announcement, it’s a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us,” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the northwest.
Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. “Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go,” he said.
A European diplomat was also sceptical. “It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” the diplomat said.
“However, I say potentially because we’ve seen before with Russia that what’s promised isn’t always what happens.”
Moment of truth
The Geneva talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month’s “cessation of hostilities,” sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad’s government and many of his foes.
Speaking before Putin’s announcement, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks in Geneva to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.
The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and al-Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.
The Syrian opposition has said the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition.
Damascus has said Assad’s opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2016-03-14