- Military in Syria can be reinforced in hours, president says
- Partial withdrawal was agreed on with Assad, Putin says
President Vladimir Putin said Russia’s military operation in Syria created “conditions for the start” of peace talks to help resolve the country’s five-year war, even as he warned that his forces can return rapidly if needed.
Russia demonstrated leadership, will and responsibility by sending forces to Syria to fight terrorism and support President Bashar al-Assad, Putin said at a military awards ceremony in the Kremlin on Thursday. The withdrawal of most of those forces announced Monday was agreed with Assad, who was told in advance, Putin said.
The Russian military remaining in Syria can be reinforced “literally within a few hours, if necessary,” though “we don’t want to do it,” Putin said. “Military escalation is not our choice.”
Putin, whose intervention in support of Assad turned the tide in Syria’s civil war, ordered the partial pullout after more than five months of airstrikes. The surprise move puts pressure on the Syrian government and opposition groups to reach a peace deal at talks that resumed in Geneva this week. Russia has urged Assad’s administration 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 road to peace was opened by you -- the soldiers of Russia,” Putin told military officials and pilots who’d participated in the Syrian campaign. Personnel still in Syria are helping to control the cease-fire that took effect last month, and are well protected, he said.
The Russian S-400 air-defense system is remaining in Syria and nobody has the right to violate the country’s airspace, Putin said. Russia’s partners have been told that its defenses will deal “with any target we consider a threat to Russian military forces -- I want to emphasize this, any target.”
Russia strengthened air defenses after Turkish fighters shot down a Russian bomber near the border with Syria in November. Turkey accused Russia of violating its airspace, which Russia denied. The incident plunged relations between the two countries into crisis and Russia imposed sanctions against Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Putin said Assad’s showing “restraint, a genuine desire for peace and a readiness for compromise and dialogue.” Russia’s key goal in Syria was to fight terrorism and it will continue to help the government fight Islamic State, he said.
The Defense Ministry has spent 33 billion rubles ($482 million) on operations in Syria and additional funds may be needed to top up military arsenals after the campaign, Putin said. Four servicemen died during operations, he said.
One was the pilot of the jet downed by Turkey and another was a marine involved in efforts to rescue the surviving crew member. An artillery officer who served as a military adviser and a special forces soldier were also killed, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said by phone Thursday. A fifth serviceman, Vadim Kostenko, was found dead at his base in Syria in October.
Russia will complete the withdrawal of most of its forces from Syria in two to three days, the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper reported Thursday, citing the commander of the Russian Air Force, General Viktor Bondarev.
The Russian pullout, coupled with the refugee crisis and the fight against Islamic State, is moving the search for a political settlement forward, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, told reporters on Tuesday after meeting the opposition delegation. “All this has produced a new momentum,” he said.
Syria’s government rejected direct talks with the main opposition group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, on Wednesday. “We consider them a terrorist delegation that belongs to a terrorist faction,” Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, said after talks with de Mistura. The HNC said Tuesday that it’s prepared to sit down face-to-face with the government side.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday he’ll travel to Moscow next week for meetings about the Russian military withdrawal and the Geneva talks. Putin may meet with Kerry to discuss coordinating Russian and U.S. actions to advance the Syrian peace process, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Syria’s regime has indicated that it will only accept a limited role for the opposition in government, and that discussing Assad’s position is a “red line.” A plan presented to de Mistura on Monday by the Assad delegation included the formation of a national unity government that would include some opposition acceptable to Damascus, Al Arabiya reported, citing an unidentified person close to the talks.
The opposition insists that the president must step down at the start of a transitional period. Assad’s proposal for a national unity government means the “preservation of current rule,” said Salem al-Muslet, the HNC’s chief spokesman.