15 Mar 2016

Russia begins Syria military withdrawal

Russian forces begin pulling out of Syria after a six-month military campaign supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The first group of Russian SU-34 war planes withdrawn from Syria have landed at an air base in southern Russia.

The withdrawal follows a surprise announcement from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that his country’s objectives in Syria had largely been met.

Despite the pullout, some Russian troops will remain in Syria, which has suffered from five years of civil war, and air strikes will continue.

Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s chief-of-staff, said Russia will also keep its most advanced surface-to-air missile system in Syria.

President Putin’s announcement coincides with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva, attended by the Syrian government and opposition, and a tentative ceasefire.

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said the Russian decision was “a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations”.

‘We do not trust them’

But the spokesman for a rebel group in Latakia, where fighting has continued throughout the truce, said he did not believe the Russians were changing course. “We do not trust them,” said Fadi Ahmad, of the First Coastal Division.

Russian pilots have also been helping the Syrian army fight Islamic State, which is not included in the ceasefire, near the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has helped President Assad recapture territory from rebel groups.

Terrorist groups

Moscow says its air campaign has targeted terrorist groups including Islamic State, which is also being bombed by the US-led coalition in Syria.

But critics say Moscow has been more interested in bolstering the Assad regime, by hitting rebel groups backed by the west, than taking on IS.

Assad’s government and other military groups are accused of war crimes by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

The civil war has resulted in more than 250,000 deaths, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and contrbuted to the rise of Islamic State.

Russia’s interest in Syria stems from the fact that it leases a naval base in Tartus and has forces at an air base in Latakia.