Russia begins Syria withdrawal as Putin puts onus on Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C) at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 14, 2016.  Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 14 ordered the defence ministry to begin the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on March 15. / AFP / SPUTNIK / MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV


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 “loading equipment, logistics items and inventory into transport” planes as well as preparing jets for “long-range flight” 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 Syria’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 didn’t request the withdrawal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Russia has urged the Syrian leader to be “constructive” in the latest peace talks that began Monday, aimed at ending a conflict that’s killed a quarter-million people, sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and allowed IS a foothold. For Putin, who’s worked with the US to promote diplomacy in Syria even though the two powers backed opposite sides in the war, it’s an opportunity to display peacemaking credentials while preserving the gains Assad’s army made under Russian air cover.
‘Effective Work’
“Putin is a wily guy. He is showing he’s a statesman,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Russia is also sending a message to Assad who has been sounding too confident.”
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 “continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining” both that truce and the Geneva talks.
In ordering the pullback of the “main part” of Russia’s military from Syria, Putin said the armed forces’ “effective work” created the conditions for beginning the peace process. “I hope today’s decision will be a good signal to all the conflicting sides,” the Russian president said.

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