Russia begins withdrawal of military equipment from Syria: Defence ministry

President of Russia Vladimir Putin (right) listens to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in the Kremlin, Moscow, on March 14, 2014.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin (right) listens to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in the Kremlin, Moscow, on March 14, 2014. PHOTO: EPA

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia has begun to withdraw military equipment from Syria, the defence ministry said on Tuesday (March 15), hours after President Vladimir Putin announced the country would pull the bulk of its forces from the war-torn country.

“Technicians at the (Hmeimim) airbase have begun preparing aircraft for long-range flights to airbases in the Russian Federation,” the defence ministry said in a statement, adding that military equipment was being loaded onto the planes.

President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday night that Moscow was set to withdraw the “most part” of its troops in Syria, saying his forces had achieved their military goals and expressed hope that peace talks will yield a settlement to end the five-year war.

The move, which came as peace talks were underway in Geneva, is expected to put more pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s long-standing ally, to negotiate a solution to end the war.

Putin said he hoped the withdrawal would provide a “good signal” for all the warring sides in the conflict.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Moscow’s Hmeimim air base in Syria and its Tartus naval facility would remain functioning and that some military contingents would stay behind.  He did not however give any details on how many soldiers would stay in Syria, nor whether Russia’s S-400 air defence systems and combat planes would remain in the country.

Russia began its airstrikes in support of Assad’s forces in September, a move that helped shore up the regime’s crumbling forces and allow them to go on the offensive.  

The West had accused Russia – which insisted its strikes were aimed against “terrorist” groups including Islamic State (ISIS) extremists – of targeting more moderate rebels fighting Assad.

A ceasefire between Assad’s forces and opponents in the country introduced on Feb 27 has largely held, but it does not cover the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front jihadist groups.

Meanwhile the UN Security Council views Russia's decision to begin withdrawing from Syria as a positive step, the body's president said on Monday (March 14).

The council discussed the surprise Russian announcement during a closed-door meeting, when it also heard a report from UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on a new round of peace talks that opened in Geneva.

"The decision just announced today by the Russian president - that's a positive step," said Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, who holds the council's rotating presidency this month.

"That's what we like to see."

Martins said council ambassadors understood that the withdrawal would take place "gradually but surely" and that air strikes would be reduced in intensity as the forces pull out.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said following the meeting that "finally" all the components of Syria's peace process were in place, including a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian aid deliveries and negotiations.

He added that some council members understood that the Russian decision to begin withdrawing "shows our deep commitment to the political process" to end Syria's war.

"I think this is a proper interpretation of this decision," Churkin said in comments released by the Russian mission to the United Nations.

Although Russia has gained the upper hand in Syria with its military intervention, diplomats say it remains unclear whether the Kremlin can impose a settlement on Assad.

In his report to council members, De Mistura stressed that the ceasefire was fragile, saying the 17-day truce must be protected, diplomats said.

Too many "incidents" threaten to erode the cessation of hostilities, the envoy said, according to diplomats.

The UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva, which began on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the conflict's outbreak, are the latest effort to end violence that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.