Russia’s defence ministry announced on Tuesday that the first of its aircraft had departed Syria following the suprise pull-out order from President Vladimir Putin.
The statement came a day after Putin announced the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria, timing his move to coincide with the resumption of Syria peace talks in Geneva.
The start of the negotiations in Switzerland on Monday offered Putin an opportune moment to declare an official end to the five-and-a-half-month Russian air campaign, which has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army to win back key ground and strengthen his positions ahead of the talks.
Moscow did not indicate when the first planes were scheduled to leave, nor how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn.
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The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has never been revealed, but US estimates suggest it varies from 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel on the ground.
With Russia’s main goals in Syria achieved, the withdrawal will allow Putin to pose as a peacemaker and help to ease tensions with NATO member Turkey and the Gulf monarchies vexed by Moscow’s military action.
At the same time, Putin made it clear that Russia will maintain its airbase and a naval facility in Syria and keep some troops there. Syria’s state news agency also quoted Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent but won’t leave the country altogether.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr said Russia’s move should be viewed as a message to the West that it does not want open-ended involvement in the five-year conflict. But she noted that Moscow’s military presence remains significant.
“We have to remember this is not an end to the military presence. The fact the S-400 defence system is still on the ground means Russia is still the main external player in Syria,” Khodr said.
Source: Al Jazeera and Agencies