A first group of Russian military planes on Tuesday left Moscow’s base in Syria heading for home after President Vladimir Putin’s order on Monday to withdraw most of his forces from the war-torn country, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Putin announced on Monday that ‘the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as UN-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war.
But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process. I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled,” Putin said.
With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces “have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism”, he added.
Russia’s withdrawal came as fresh talks started in Geneva on the fifth anniversary of the start of the brutal five-year conflict in Syria that has cost some 270,000 lives.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that technical staff had begun preparing aircraft to fly back to their bases in Russia in line with Putin's orders. Russia has maintained a strike force at the Hmeymim base of at least 50 aircraft and helicopters.
“The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the Ministry said in a statement, adding that they included Su-34 bombers and a Tu-154 transport plane.
The Kremlin has used the base, which Putin said Russia would keep along with a naval facility at Tartous, to mount a five-month campaign of air strikes to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, an intervention that has tipped the balance of power in the Syrian leader's favor.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad’s favor after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including US-made anti-tank missiles.
“There has been a significant turning point in the fight against terrorism,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said in a statement that Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence, and denied suggestions it reflected a difference between the two countries.
Western diplomats speculated that Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, although US officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out.
Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Monday about Syria, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict.
Russia's UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.