Russia said its forces have started leaving Syria after President Vladimir Putin ordered the military withdrawal in a surprise move that puts pressure on the regime of Bashar Al Assad and opposition groups to reach a peace deal at talks in Geneva.
The first group of planes, including Su-34 bombers, have returned to bases in Russia, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said on Tuesday, according to the Interfax news service. Troops are also â€œloading equipment, logistics items and inventory into transportâ€ planes as well as preparing jets for â€œlong-range flightâ€ to Russia at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, the ministry said in a statement on its website Tuesday.
Putin, whose military intervention last year in support of Assad turned the tide in Syriaâ€™s five-year civil war, ordered the partial pullout on Monday at a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russian air base and a naval facility in Syria will continue to function, he said. Assad didnâ€™t request the withdrawal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia has urged the Syrian leader to be â€œconstructiveâ€ in the latest peace talks that began Monday, aimed at ending a conflict thatâ€™s killed a quarter-million people, sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and allowed IS a foothold. For Putin, whoâ€™s worked with the US to promote diplomacy in Syria even though the two powers backed opposite sides in the war, itâ€™s an opportunity to display peacemaking credentials while preserving the gains Assadâ€™s army made under Russian air cover.
â€œPutin is a wily guy. He is showing heâ€™s a statesman,â€ said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. â€œRussia is also sending a message to Assad who has been sounding too confident.â€
Russia will withdraw Su-24, Su-25 and Su-34 bombers, the main strike force at Khmeimim, Rossiya 24 state TV reported Tuesday. The base is also home to Su-35C, Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets that have bombing capabilities.
Putin and President Barack Obama discussed the Russian plan to withdraw troops by phone on Monday, the White House said. Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the US and Russia helped broker a truce last month, but said that â€œcontinuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk underminingâ€ both that truce and the Geneva talks.
In ordering the pullback of the â€œmain partâ€ of Russiaâ€™s military from Syria, Putin said the armed forcesâ€™ â€œeffective workâ€ created the conditions for beginning the peace process. â€œI hope todayâ€™s decision will be a good signal to all the conflicting sides,â€ the Russian president said.