Russia begins pull-out from Syria but bombing will continue

Russia begins pull-out from Syria but bombing will continue
Following President Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement of a Russian withdrawal from Syria on Monday night, the country's air force is beginning to fly military personnel back to Russia via Iraq.
5 min read
15 March, 2016
Russia had a fleet of around 50 aircraft in Syria [AFP]

Russia has said that it will continue its bombing campaign against "terrorist" groups in Syria.

It comes as a blow to Syrians who had hoped that Russia might halt its aerial assaults in Syria, which have caused huge carnage in the country.

A Russian contingent will remain at air base in Latakia, and carry out operations against "extremist groups" in Syria.

On Tuesday, Russian war planes carried out air raids against IS the Islamic State group in Palmyra.

Members of the opposition say that Russia has frequently this argument as cover for its air raids on moderate opposition towns.

"We are leaving completely reliable cover for the remaining contingent... To effectively ensure security, including from the air, we need the most modern air defence systems," the BBC reported Russia's chief-of-staff Sergey Ivanov saying.

Russian pilots returned home from Syria on Tuesday to a hero's welcome. Spectators gathered at an airbase close to Moscow to watch a flypast by the returning war planes.
Pilots were greeted with flowers and applause, and thrown into the air by a crowd during a ceremony broadcasted by Russian state TV.
Russia's involvement in the Syrian war had led to stalemate, and its intention to defeat extremists - such as the Islamic State group - has been largely unachieved with the militant organisation still strong in Syria's east.
The civilian cost of the bombing campaign has tragic, with at least 1,700 killed from Russian attacks.
Surprise withdrawal

Russia began their withdrawal from Syria on Tuesday morning, following President Vladimir Putin's surprise announcement on Monday of Moscow's pull-out from the war-torn country.

The first planes to leave Russia's airbase in Latakia included a Tu-154 transport aircraft and a Su-34 Fullback bomber, the defence ministry said in a statement.

"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," it read. 

The ministry said that the cargo planes would carry personnel or equipment out of the country and be escorted home by Russian warplanes.

"Each group in this format will fly according to a prearranged route to the border of the Russia Federation and after crossing it all the planes will fly on independently to their own bases," the statement said. 

Each flight would be led either by a Tu-254 or Il-76 transport aircraft carrying arms and troops, Russian media reported.

Fighter jets and war planes would then follow, the statement said.

Via Iraq

An unnamed Iraqi minister told The New Arab that the aircraft have passed through Iraq on their way back to Russian airspace.

Three Russian military cargo planes entered Iraqi airspace at around 9 am local time from the direction of Damascus on their way to Moscow, he said.

"Iraqi aviation authorities allowed three Russian military cargo planes coming from Damascus to cross in the direction of the northeast into Iran. They are likely to be transporting soldiers or military hardware being pulled out at the orders of Russian president Vladimir Putin," he said.

The minister believed that most of the Russian flights would travel by air through Iraq, and said that the Iraqi government were happy with the arrangement.

"The Russian air campaign in Syria has created all necessary conditions for internal political settlement of the Syrian conflict," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

"The pull-out schedule is the responsibility of the Russian Defence Ministry," Peskov added.

Russia will keep its airbase in Latakia and seaport in Tartous.

Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its airbase in Latakia, and has stationed between 3,000 and 6,000 military personnel in Syria.

Russia expects that 1,000 troops, technicians, sailors and pilots would stay behind in Syria to man its Latakia and Tartous bases.

The move comes as peace talks between regime and opposition figures are due to take place in Geneva.

The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has welcomed the move in a statement and said this offers better prospects for peace in Syria.

"The announcement by President Putin on the very day of the beginning of this round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations in Geneva aimed at achieving a political solution of the Syrian conflict and a peaceful political transition in the country."

But talk of peace has only been part of the message Russia is sending out with its withdrawal.

'Mission accomplished'

Russian media has been following the events live, and stuck to Moscow's victorious and jingoistic tone.

Click to enlarge [al-Araby al-Jadeed]

They have claimed that "terrorists" have been pushed back and the Islamic State group's oil supplies had been disrupted.

However, most analysts and observers agree that the vast majority of Russian bombs have hit moderate rebels such as the Free Syrian Army who are at war with the Syrian regime and IS.

Russian media have also said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been left in a stronger position since Russia launched air raids to support the regime in 30 September.

Many Russian journalists have claimed "mission accomplished" but this claim has been met with sceptism by much of the world.

Putin made the announcement of a rapid Russian withdrawal on Monday evening, shocking many regime supporters. Members of the Syrian opposition cautiously welcomed the move.

The move coincides with the fifth anniversary of the Syrian revolution which has seen as many as 470,000 killed and half the population made homeless, much of it as a result of the damage caused by Russian and regime bombing.

Agencies contributed to this story.