Russia’s Su-24M bomber jets returned to the western district of Ural from Syria as Russian Air Force Commander Viktor Bondarev said, in an interview, that Moscow will withdraw most of its military contingent in the Middle Eastern country within three days. The announcement that the troops will be back within a few days comes just two days after the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, announced the withdrawal of warplanes from the region as they have largely achieved their targets.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Sputnik News: “The Russian air campaign in Syria has created all necessary conditions for internal political settlement of the Syrian conflict,” adding: “The pullout schedule is the responsibility of the Russian Defense Ministry.”
However, Peskov added that some forces would stay back to maintain the airbase in Hemeimeem in Latakia, Syria and the naval facility in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast. Peskov said that the troops were also staying behind to supervise if the ceasefire in the region is being upheld.
The announcement from Putin was considered a surprise by Western forces. Over the last six months, the position of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been a key Russian ally in the region, has stabilized, while a ceasefire has also been brokered between Assad’s administration and rebel forces. Russia has been at the center of the developments and the latest move has been appreciated by Western forces.
However, some have expressed skepticism over Russia’s move and have speculated if Russia has become frustrated with failure of Assad’s government to fully engage in the Geneva Peace process.
“They’ve been frustrated for months by the quality of Assad’s leadership, and more recently by his reluctance to participate in the peace process,” William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan, said Tuesday, adding: “The withdrawal has been very much about publicly humiliating Assad and showing him that if he doesn’t take part in the peace process he could face a similar fate as other dictators that have been overthrown in recent years.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is also set to visit Russia next week to discuss the Syrian conflict. “As we mark the fifth anniversary of the start of this horrific war, we may face the best opportunity that we've had in years to end it,” Kerry said Tuesday adding: “I will be travelling next week to Moscow... to discuss how we can effectively move the political process forward and try to take advantage of this moment.”
The Syrian conflict has killed 250,000 people and has reportedly displaced over 5 million people.