Russia to keep hitting 'terrorist targets' in Syria despite pullout

Russian jets at Hmeimim airbase in Syria last month. President Vladimir Putin announced a surprise pullout from Syria on Monday, with the UN's Syria envoy expressing hope it could help peace talks.
Russian jets at Hmeimim airbase in Syria last month. President Vladimir Putin announced a surprise pullout from Syria on Monday, with the UN's Syria envoy expressing hope it could help peace talks.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • Russia has vowed to continue striking "terrorist targets" in Syria, even as its warplanes began landing back at their home air base under a surprise pullout ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

The United Nations envoy for Syria yesterdayvoiced hope it could positively influence peace talks. "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," Mr Staffan de Mistura said.

But hopes for a breakthrough at the talks remain remote, with both sides locked in a dispute over President Bashar al-Assad's future. The Russian pullout is expected to put more pressure on Mr Assad to negotiate a solution to end the war.

Russia began its air strikes in September, helping Assad forces to regain territory from rebels. "It is still too early to speak of victory over terrorism. The Russian air group has a task of continuing to strike terrorist targets," Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov said at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, where Moscow's planes are based. Russia will leave air defences in place, including the S-400 anti-aircraft system to protect its remaining forces in Syria.

President Putin's shock announcement on Monday came after talks with Mr Assad and also a phone call to US President Barack Obama. Mr Obama "underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence", the White House said.

The Russian leader "is showing he's a statesman", said Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. "Russia is also sending a message to Assad who has been sounding too confident."

Most Russian media hailed the pullout as a political victory for Mr Putin although some commentators suggested other motives.

"Russia is setting an example of a peaceful approach to settling conflict," the pro-Kremlin Izvestia daily said on its front page. "By announcing the withdrawal, Moscow has serious grounds to present the Syrian campaign as (a) victory."

Kommersant newspaper also called it a victory, but said helping Mr Assad to win back all of his war-ravaged country could have taken years, with "no guarantees whatsoever that this would have worked out". It added that by continuing an aggressive role, Russia would have alienated key regional players such as Turkey and the Gulf states.

"It appears the Kremlin took into account the risk of a repeat of Vietnam and Afghanistan when military campaigns which initially were planned to be short term stretched over many years," liberal business daily Vedomosti said.

Political analyst Georgy Bovt said Russia never planned to save the Assad regime "at all costs".

"If we are honest, the task was to overcome (Russia's) international isolation over the Ukraine crisis".

"And this has been implemented in full. Our return to big geopolitics has taken place,"he said.

But the opposition Novaya Gazeta said the withdrawal was no victory, costing ruptured ties with Turkey and the lives of 224 civilians when a Russian plane was bombed over the Sinai Peninsula in October. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed it was revenge for Moscow's campaign in Syria.

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front claims it is preparing to launch a new offensivein Syria. "It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat," a commander told Agence France-Presse. A temporary ceasefire between Mr Assad's forces and opponents has largely held since Feb 27, but it does not cover Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Russia to keep hitting 'terrorist targets' in Syria despite pullout'. Print Edition | Subscribe