- Strikes against terrorists to continue, Russian official says
- Putin says forces met objective of boosting peace efforts
Russia began its withdrawal of forces from Syria as the country’s opposition said the move will help peace talks in Geneva, while a top Russian military official said airstrikes will continue against terrorists.
The pullout ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a positive step which will help to move forward the negotiations,” Salem al-Muslet, chief spokesman for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. Syria’s opposition wants to see “actions on the ground” supporting Putin’s announcement, he said.
Su-34 bombers are among jets that have left the Khmeimim air base in Syria and troops are “loading equipment, logistics items and inventory into transport” planes, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday on Twitter. Forces remaining in Syria are under orders to continue airstrikes against terrorists because it’s too early to talk about the defeat of terrorism, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said at the base Tuesday, according to a ministry spokesman.
Putin, whose military intervention last year in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime turned the tide in Syria’s five-year civil war, ordered the partial pullout on Monday. The surprise move puts pressure on the Syrian government and opposition groups to reach a peace deal at talks that resumed in Geneva on Monday. Russia has urged the Syrian leader to be “constructive” in the negotiations to end a conflict that’s killed a quarter-million people, sparked a refugee exodus to Europe and allowed Islamic State a foothold.
The HNC wants a “serious partner” at the talks, while Assad’s proposal for a national unity government means the “preservation of current rule,” al-Muslet said. The opposition delegation later began a meeting with Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, a day after he met with the government delegation.
Syria’s regime is indicating that it will only accept a limited role for the opposition in government, and that discussing Assad’s position is a “red line.” The opposition, backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, continues to insist that Assad must step down at the start of a transitional period.
The Syrian negotiations require more intensive efforts from Russia, the U.S. and UN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. Syrian opposition groups are acting more “constructively” at the talks than during a first, aborted round earlier this year, he said.
Russia won’t ease up in its fight against terrorism and will leave air defenses in place including the S-400 anti-aircraft system to protect its remaining forces in Syria, Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday.
Russia’s sorties in Syria have been reduced by two-thirds and it no longer needs a mission of this size, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. The first jets from Syria landed at an airbase in Russia’s Voronezh region, state-run Rossiya 24 reported Tuesday.
The Russian air base and a naval facility in Syria will continue to function, Putin said.
The Russian leader’s announcement “is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations,” de Mistura said in a statement Tuesday.
For Putin, who’s worked with the U.S. to promote diplomacy in Syria even though the two powers backed opposite sides in the war, the withdrawal is an opportunity to display peacemaking credentials while preserving the gains Assad’s army made under Russian air cover.
Putin and President Barack Obama discussed the Russian plan to remove forces by phone on Monday, the White House said. Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the U.S. 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. The current cease-fire allows operations against UN-designated terrorist groups to continue.
The U.S. has softened calls for Assad’s removal in recent months, while continuing to argue that a long-term settlement won’t be possible while he’s in office. In his phone call with Putin, Obama “underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence,” the White House said.
The Russian leader “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.”