PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin “Our goals are generally fulfilled”
UPDATE 1430 GMT: Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV says Russian warplanes have continued attacks on the Islamic State, supporting a ground offensive by the Syrian military in central Syria.
Russia has backed the advance towards Palmyra, the Roman-era city in Homs Province captured by ISIS last May.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov had told a ceremony in Moscow that bombing would continue:
Certain positive results have been reached. A real chance has emerged to bring an end to the long-time conflict and violence. However, it is early to speak about the victory over terrorism now.
Russia’s aviation group has the task to continue delivering strikes on the facilities of terrorists.
Earlier on Tuesday, Russian State TV said the first group of warplanes had left the Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, with footage of soldiers loading an Ilyushin-76 transport plane with equipment.
Kremlin chief of staff Sergey Ivanov said remaining Russian forces in Syria will have “protection from the air, the sea, and the ground”, including advanced S-400 air defense systems.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: In an unexpected announcement, President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that the “main part” of Russia’s forces will leave Syria immediately.
Putin’s announcement came on the first day of renewed political talks in Geneva, raising further questions about the President’s timing.
The President said Russia’s objectives in thousands of airstrikes and support of pro-Assad ground offensives, which began September 30, had been “generally fulfilled”.
However, he did not explain the contradiction between Moscow’s declared focus — the defeat of the Islamic State — and the fact that ISIS remains in place in much of northern and central Syria, including the cities of Raqqa and Palmyra.
Instead, Putin framed the intervention as the creation of “conditions for the start of a peace process” as well as assistance to the Syrian military “to turn the tide in fight against international terrorism”.
The President did not technically halt all Russian military operations, including airstrikes, saying that Russia’s naval base in Tartus and airbase at the Khmeimim airfield will function in “routine mode”, and that Russian ground troops will remain to monitor any ceasefire.
Assad Eventually Responds
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov maintained that the Russia decision was “conveyed to our Syrian colleagues and coordinated with President Assad”. The Syrian Presidency was slow to react, but eventually put out a statement:
The Syrian and Russian sides agreed, during a telephone call between President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, to decrease the number of the Russian air forces in Syria.
Regime supporters on social media initially denied any significance to Putin’s statement before grudgingly accepting it.
@EliotHiggins Tbh: they're not really leaving. Just excess ground forces. Air Force is still operating. Just a media ploy
— Leith Abou Fadel (@leithfadel) March 14, 2016
@thelateempire They're still going to use the airport in Latakia, but a lot of assets leaving
— Leith Abou Fadel (@leithfadel) March 15, 2016
Assad’s office was forced by speculation to insist that “Syria and Russia are, as always, together fighting terrorism”.
The opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee quickly welcomed the possibilities of the Russian step. HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said:
If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push. If this is a serious step it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that.
However, al-Muslat remained cautious and maintained the opposition’s demand for a complete halt to Russian intervention:
Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go.
Hussam Abu Saad, a member of the Free Syrian Army Southern Front’s General Command, echoed:
Russia’s decision to withdraw came as a surprise, just like its decision to intervene. I’ll say that its withdrawal is a victory surrounded by uncertainty, and surrounded by a lack of faith that they will implement, fully, the troop withdrawal declarations.
The US, which has worked with Russia to arrange a partial cessation of hostilities and the renewal of political talks for a resolution to Syria’s five-year conflict, appeared to be caught by surprise.
An unnamed official said that Washington was encouraged by Putin’s announcement but that it was too early to establish its significance, its motivation, or even whether the President will carry out the withdrawal.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the announcement a “positive development” if Russia supported the talks.
On Monday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura held his initial discussions with the regime delegation, led by UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari.
Jaafari said the “dialogue” was “positive and constructive”.
De Mistura is scheduled to meet the opposition-rebel HNC on Tuesday and the Assad representatives again on Wednesday.
Protests Against Jabhat al-Nusra in Northwest
There have been protests against Jabhat al-Nusra in the northwest Syrian town of Maarat al-Num’an, amid the conflict between the jihadists and the Free Syrian Army’s Division 13.
Reports indicated on Monday that demonstrators and FSA members burned a Nusra headquarters in the town and freed detainees.
Footage has been posted of another protest on Tuesday.
The clashes between Division 13 and Nusra have been building for more than two weeks in Maarat al-Num’an, 33 km (21 miles) south of Idlib city. After raids by Division 13’s troops on Nusra homes and offices earlier this week, fighting escalated on Saturday in the town.
Jabhat al-Nusra said on Sunday that it would accept the submissions of its disputes with Division 13 to a Sharia court, proposing three “neutral” scholars as judges.
Division 13 says some of its men have been released, but a commander, Zaher al-Ahmed, and four troops are still detained.