Russia ‘to pull its forces out of Syria’528 views
• Russia to end five month-long military campaign in Syria
• Says it will now focus on brokering peace deal
• Bombing campaign has “created the conditions for start of the peace process”
• Obama and Putin discuss next steps after Russian withdrawal
Vladimir Putin abruptly ordered the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria today in an unexpected and potentially significant moment in the five-year effort to end Syria’s civil war.
The Russian president made the shock announcement at a meeting of government minsters on Monday and said that his country’s forces should begin leaving Syria as early as Tuesday.
The decision caught the US and other Western countries off guard and came as negotiators from the Syrian regime and opposition forces gathered for the start of peace talks in Geneva.
If the withdrawal is carried out it could be a sign is Russia sincere in its claim it wants to end the fighting in Syria after a conflict that has killed 300,000 people and created millions of refugees.
Russia began bombing late last year with that stated aim of destroying “terrorist” groups inside Syria but in reality it focused its fire on propping up Mr Assad’s embattled forces.
Mr Putin said he believed Russia’s mission in Syria had now been “largely fulfilled” and phoned Mr Assad to inform him that his troops were withdrawing.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Mr Putin said. “I believe the task set before the Ministry of Defence and armed forces has been largely fulfilled, so I am instructing the minister of defence to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from Syria.”
He also ordered Russia to “intensify” its efforts to broker a peace deal between the Assad regime and opposition groups.
Mr Putin did not give a timeline for the withdrawal and said that Russian troops would retain control of the port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim airbase in Syria’s Latakia province.
Mr Putin discussed Russia’s partial withdrawal with President Barack Obama on Monday night.
The White House said the two presidents discussed the next steps to resolve the conflict, and Mr Obama insisted that a “political transition” in Syria was needed.
Earlier on Monday, the US said it had received no warning of the move and officials said there were as yet no indications on the ground that Russian forces were preparing to withdraw. The White House had offered a cautious response to Mr Putin’s announcement, saying it would wait “to see exactly what Russia’s intentions are”.
Germany welcomed the news, meanwhile, with foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying a Russian withdrawal “increases the pressure on President Assad to finally negotiate in a serious way”.
The announcement was welcomed by the Syrian opposition, which said it would help pressure the regime into reaching a peace deal at the Geneva talks.
“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee.
The Russian force in Syria has been estimated to number some 4,000 men, including airmen, logistical support, and marine infantry. While the Kremlin has not acknowledged it, there is also evidence that Russian artillery units have been active in the campaign.
The West and human rights groups have accused Russia of killing hundreds of civilians in its air raids, including the bombing of several hospitals.
“The question now is how long the withdrawal will take and what does Putin means by ‘the main component’ of Russia’s military in Syria? If he doesn’t mean the aerial component, and if the withdrawal takes months, this won’t mean anything,” said Michael Horowitz, a security analyst with the Levantine Group.
Photo: Raqqa Media Center/AP
The move could give fresh impetus to the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, which began after the unexpected success of a ceasefire agreement that went into force last month.
Although there has been sporadic fighting since the truce began on February 26, the level of violence has fallen dramatically in Syria in the last three weeks.
The truce does not include Isil or the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda group in Syria, and the US, Britain and other coalition countries have continued bombing Isil forces.
Huge gulfs remain the opposition and the regime at the peace talks, including on the issue of a “political transition” in Syria.
The opposition demands that the transition include the immediate removal of Mr Assad, while the regime says it is limited to creating a new constitution and elections in which he would be allowed to stand.
Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP
Meanwhile, the UN released new figures showing that the Syrian civil war has turned 2.4 million children into refugees.
The numbers were released by the United Nations children’s fund Unicef and a host of other agencies to mark five years since the first protests against the Assad regime began in 2011, triggering a wider uprising.
Tens of thousands of children are among the quarter of a million dead.
Children – including girls and many under-15s are being recruited as soldiers. Among the worst hit were those suffering from the latest tactic of imposing sieges on civilian areas, who were starting to die of starvation.
“Twice as many people now live under siege or in hard-to-reach areas compared with 2013,” Unicef said. “At least two million of those cut off from assistance are children, including more than 200,000 in areas under siege.”
The Kremlin said Russia had achieved “a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria” even though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) still controls a third of the country.