Russian media declares ‘victory’ as Syria withdrawal begins

A first group of Russian military planes on Tuesday left Moscow's base in Syria heading for home after President Vladimir Putin's shock order to withdraw most of his forces from the war-torn country, the defense ministry said.  

"The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation," the ministry said in a statement, adding that they included Su-34 bombers and a Tu-154 transport plane.

The ministry said that aircraft would leave the air base in groups made up of one transport plane carrying technical personnel or equipment accompanied by Russian warplanes.

"Each group in this format will fly according to a prearranged route to the border of the Russia Federation and after crossing it all the planes will fly on independently to their own bases," the statement said.

Putin on Monday stunned the West by ordering the withdrawal of the main part of Russia's forces in Syria some five-and-a-half months after Moscow started its bombing campaign in support of long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad.

The move, which came as peace talks to end the five-year conflict 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 jihadists – of targeting more moderate rebels fighting Assad.

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

Russian media declares "victory"

Russian media on Tuesday meanwhile hailed the withdrawal as a "victory."

"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 said.

Citing several high-ranking sources at the defense ministry,  Kommersant said Putin's decision to announce the partial withdrawal of troops after a five-and-a-half-month aerial campaign was not "spontaneous."

Helping ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to win back the whole of his war-ravaged country could have taken years, it said, adding "there were no guarantees whatsoever that this would have worked out."  

The brutal five-year conflict in Syria that has already cost some 270,000 lives.

Kommersant said by continuing to play an aggressive role, Russia would have alienated key regional players such as Turkey and the Gulf states.  

Liberal business daily Vedomosti said Moscow could have been caught in a lengthy conflict.

"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," Vedomosti said.

Political analyst Georgy Bovt, speaking on Business FM radio, 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," he said, referring to a separatist war in eastern Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russian insurgents that the Krenlin is accused of fuelling.

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

But the media also stressed that nothing prevented Putin from sending Russia's armed forces back to Syria if needed.  

"Russia leaves but also stays," said online newspaper, pointing out that its military bases in Hmeimim and Tartus will keep operating.  

But the opposition Novaya Gazeta said the withdrawal could not be termed a victory, with the campaign costing ruptured ties with Turkey and the lives of 224 civilians killed when a Russian plane was bombed over the Sinai Peninsula in October.

Islamic State jihadists claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was revenge for Moscow's campaign in Syria.

"The most worrying question is, what next?" said Novaya Gazeta, adding that Russians over the past months have grown used to massive television propaganda extolling Moscow's military victories.

"Are we ready to exit this state of emergency or is it a case of 'the show must go on'?" the newspaper asked.  

AFP contributed to this report.


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