Russian state TV broadcast pictures of Russian soldiers moving weaponry into an aircraft at an airbase in Syria, signifying Russia’s move to withdraw its warplanes from Syria as it takes a step back from the protracted conflict.
The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that the technical team is preparing for the return to Russia of its aircrafts operating in Syria, one day after Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his army to withdraw its “main forces” from Syria.
A group of Russian aircrafts left Hmeimim air base Tuesday, according to a statement released by the Russian defence ministry.
Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad agreed in a phone call Monday to withdraw Russia’s main forces from Syria as “the Russian Aerospace Forces had fulfilled the fundamental tasks assigned to them”. Russia’s direct involvement in Syria began in October 2015.
A Russian air traffic control will stay in Syria to monitor the ceasefire.
“I order the Defence Ministry to begin withdrawing the main part of our military group from the Syrian Arab Republic beginning tomorrow. I ask the Foreign Ministry to intensify the Russian Federation’s participation in organising the peace process to resolve Syria’s problems,” Putin said in a meeting with his foreign and defence ministers.
According to the Kremlin, the participation of Russian troops helped the Syrian army to radically change the situation in fighting international terrorism and to take initiatives in nearly all areas to create the conditions for the start of the peace process.
“In total, with support from our air force, the Syrian troops liberated 400 towns and over 10,000 square kilometres of territory. We have made a significant turning point in the fight against terrorism,” said Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in the same meeting.
The Russian decision was made without consulting with the United States.
The announcement came the same day the Syria peace talks were resumed in Geneva.
UN envoy to Syria Staffan Di Mistura clarified that the UN is facilitating, mediating, pushing, and stimulating, “but the real peacemakers here are the peacemaking powers who wanted these talks, the ISSG, and the Security Council members, and hopefully the Syrian sides”.
“If during these talks and in the next rounds we don’t see any willingness to negotiate, which we hope is not going to be the case – obviously we will do what we want to do and we have done – we will bring the issue back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA, co-chairs of the ISSG, and the Security Council,” Di Mistura said in a statement.
This round of negotiations is supposed to extend until 24 March. The UN described the Russian decision as a positive sign. France also welcomed the move as “it will ease the tension”.
The Russian decision surprised many international players, but the reasons behind the move remain vague.
Sayed Ghoniem, an Egyptian security and defence advisor, believes Putin wants to show the world that he could outmanoeuvre the US, EU and Gulf countries.
“He wants to show that he kept to his word,” said Ghoneim. “He said that he wanted to stabilise the Syrian government and prove that he did. He could stay and fight back against IS and the Syrian opposition forces, most of whom are described as terrorist groups by the international community even by the Gulf countries themselves.”
According to Ghoniem, Putin could also be trying to prove that he forced the opposition to negotiate with the regime and that he forced all parties to work with him, including the west, opposition forces in Syria, Gulf countries, Turkey and others.
Another possibility could be that despite achieving his aims, his presence in Syria is costing him, thus forcing him to halt operations there.
Hidden deals and agreements with all parties involved might urge him to cease his role in Syria, according to Ghoniem.
“Russia is withdrawing as if it achieved all its goals, but it could also be down to them having achieved the most important goal: enabling the Syrian regime to make its own decisions based on the situation on the ground … but for how long? … Maybe Russia took the decision because it doesn’t want to be involved in Syria any longer owing to its huge economic burden,” Ghoniem added.
Moscow vowed to keep striking against the “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria, a claim that was given weight after Russian air forces helped the Syrian army approach the IS-controlled historic city of Palmyra Tuesday.