MOSCOW (TIP): Russia began withdrawing its forces from Syria in a move that will leave the Syrian government to fend for itself to a much greater extent — but with a greatly strengthened hand in negotiations over the country’s future.
The first group of Russian planes left Hmeymim air base in Syria on Tuesday, March 15 morning, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Russia’s surprise announcement Monday that it would begin withdrawing its forces from the conflict came as suddenly as its devastating airstrike campaign that started in September.
But Syria’s government was not caught unawares by the move, a senior official said.
“We were not surprised because the decision was made in coordination and consultation with us,” Bouthaina Shaaban, senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said.
“We knew beforehand that this is what was going to be announced because the Russians came here to achieve certain jobs, and we and they agreed that most of the jobs have been achieved.”
In terms of “fighting terrorism,” she said, “they’ve done a great job and they will continue in fighting terrorism, but there are some tasks which have been completed, and therefore the Russian and Syrian leadership agreed that it is appropriate now to withdraw some of the planes or forces.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal Monday, saying that “the task that was assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces as a whole has achieved its goal.”
But critics said that Moscow’s stated goal of fighting terrorist groups such as ISIS in Syria did not accurately reflect the reality of its military actions in the war-ravaged nation.
They point to the bombings of civilian areas as evidence that Russia has been more interested in helping Assad eliminate his opposition.
Syrian opposition welcomes Russian drawdown
Asked whether the Russian withdrawal signaled a case of “mission accomplished,” Shaaban replied, “Hundreds of villages have been liberated, many towns have been liberated from armed gangs, huge parts of Syria have been liberated.”
She said Russia’s Defense Ministry had said the “war against terrorism will continue. And we are happy also to see Russian-American coordination in fighting terrorism.”
Russia’s steps were “the right steps toward a political settlement and also toward a continuation of fighting terrorism,” she continued.
Putin’s announcement came as Syrian peace talks resumed Monday in Geneva, Switzerland, in which members of the Syrian regime and opposition are meeting indirectly through a mediator to try to forge a path to peace.
Speaking on the sideline of the talks Tuesday, Syria’s main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, said it welcomed the Russian drawdown.
“What really keep(s) Assad in power now, what keep(s) crimes until this moment, is the presence of the Russian forces there,” opposition group spokesman Salim al-Muslet told reporters.
“I believe if they (are) serious about pulling out … it will be an end to crimes in Syria and will help us to put an end to terrorism there in Syria.”
Putin “should put pressure on Assad to accept (the) outcome” of the Geneva talks, he said.