Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced that his country would begin withdrawing its military personnel from Syria beginning on Tuesday. The announcement was made on the same day that peace talks between various factions in the Syrian Civil War began in Geneva.
Following heavy involvement in the way since autumn of 2015 which has included intelligence sharing and air support for the armies of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Putin cited the completion of Russia’s objectives in Syria as the prime reason for the withdrawal. A later Kremlin statement regarding a phone call with United States President Barrack Obama elaborated on the reasoning, indicating that the move was also meant to help to facilitate the peace talks currently taking place in Aleppo by lessening the Russian presence in the country. Prior to the surprise announcement by Putin, the move was not expected by analysts or most major leaders.
Within 24 hours of the announcement, Russian airplanes and military personnel had already begun to leave Syria to return to Russia. Already, some troops returning from Syria have landed inside Russian territory. However, Russia has said that it will not withdraw the entirety of its forces. According to Nikolay Pankov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, a smaller Russian force would remain in Syria in order to continue bombing missions against terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, which currently controls a large portion of eastern Syria. “…it is too early to talk about victory over terrorism. A Russian air group has the task of continuing to strike terrorist facilities,” said Pankov during an interview with the Russian RIA Novosti news service.
On Tuesday, the peace talks occurring between representatives of the Assad regime and various Syrian rebel groups in Geneva carried over into a second day. “This will increase the pressure on the al-Assad regime to finally and seriously negotiate a peaceful political transition in Geneva,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Russian decision to withdraw most of the troops from Syria. Germany, the United States and other NATO allies have, over the course of the five year civil war, called for the ouster of Assad, while Russia has continued to support his government as an ally.
Russia is expected to maintain its naval base at Tartous, an airbase at Khmeymim and around 800 troops in Syria in order to provide support and assistance to the troops loyal to Assad. In addition, a group of military advisors who have been acting as training officers for the Syrian military will also remain in place in their support roles. In conjunction with the remaining air operations that Russia will undertake in Syria, it will leave its S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems already deployed near its bases in place as a safety precaution.
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