UPDATE: 7:27 a.m. EDT — Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, is preparing to launch fresh offensives in Syria following Russia's decision to pull out its warplanes from the war-torn country, a commander of the militant group told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The announcement from the group comes as Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said, according to Reuters, that the country will continue its offensive against the Islamic State group and other militant organizations in the region.
“It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria,” a commander for the al-Nusra Front told AFP. “The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over.”
“Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia (city),” he reportedly said, adding: “The (Syrian) army let down the Russians. It is a cowardly army.”
The Russian Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that the first group of Russian warplanes has left the Hemeimeem air base in Latakia, Syria, for their permanent locations back in Russia, in a move that has been hailed as a “positive step” for a fresh round of talks backed by the United Nations aimed at ending the Syrian conflict. The move comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of his troops from the country in a televised address Monday.
The planes will be moving out of Syria in groups, the Defense Ministry said. “The group consists of the leader plane — a Tupolev-154 liner and multi-role Sukhoi-34 bombers,” the ministry said in a statement, according Tass agency, adding: “Each group consists of the leader — a military transport jet (a Tupolev-154 or Ilyushin-76) carrying engineering personnel and material assets and equipment, followed by Russian combat planes of different types.”
Once the planes cross the Russian border, they will head to their respective bases in the country, stopping only for refueling and maintenance when needed. Kremlin’s press service also said Monday evening, according to Tass, that Putin and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad agreed to withdraw the planes from Syria because they had completed the tasks assigned to them. However, a Russian air flight control will remain in Syria to monitor if the ceasefire is being upheld.
The planes' departure marks the end to an anti-terror operation in Syria, which started on Sept. 30, 2015, Russia Today reported.
Although Putin did not specify how many planes and troops will leave Syria or the number deployed there, estimates from U.S. officials have put the number of personnel present in Syria between 3,000 and 6,000, the Associated Press (AP) reported. The report also said that Russia has deployed over 50 planes and helicopters to the Hemeimeem air base.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, said Tuesday, according to AP, that about 1,000 Russian personnel will remain in two bases in Syria. He clarified that about 800 personnel are needed to safeguard two bases there while the country will continue to conduct air reconnaissance, needing some of the plane crew members to stay back while some military specialists will be advising the Syrian army.
Ozerov also added, according to AP, that Russia will keep its long-range S-400 air defense missiles, which were deployed in November after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet along the Syrian border.
Putin announced his decision to pull out most of the Russian troops from Syria on Monday in a televised meeting with his defense and foreign ministers and said that the five-month-long Russian air campaign has helped Assad to “radically” turn the tide of war and helped create the conditions for peace talks. Putin reportedly also timed the announcement to coincide with the second day of Syrian peace talks between Assad’s government and the opposition in Geneva, AP reported.
The peace talks aim to resolve the long-running conflict in the country, which has reportedly killed 250,000 people and has displaced over 5 million people.