Russia begins to draw down its forces in Syria

After more than a year of conducting airstrikes that helped prevent a collapse of the Syrian government, Russia has started to reduce its forces there, a senior Russian military commander announced.

The drawdown will start with the departure of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a small flotilla of other vessels, Gen. Valery Gerasimov said Friday in televised remarks.

Experts expressed skepticism that the announcement meant Russian was withdrawing from Syria, noting that Russia had temporarily reduced its support in the past and was continuing to upgrade its air base near the Mediterranean city of Latakia or a naval facility in the city of Tartus. 

“People should not assume that this drawdown means that they are going to leave the battlefield,” said Robert S. Ford, a Middle East expert at Yale and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Some analysts suggested that Russia’s move was aimed at putting pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad ahead of peace talks that Russia plans to convene later this month in Kazakhstan.

“They know that Assad’s manpower is very limited,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They want the regime to make concessions.”

The message to Syria is that it can no longer rely on unlimited air cover for its ground forces, he said.

Throughout the six-year civil war, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives and turned more than half the Syrian population into refugees, Russia has stood diplomatically and militarily behind Assad.

Last month, the Russian air force helped Assad’s troops retake parts of the northern city of Aleppo that had been under rebel control for almost four years, a key turning point in the war. It was a brutal assault that human rights groups said included indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

On Dec. 30, Putin announced a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey, which has long called for the removal of Assad from power.

Lt. Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, a top official in the Syrian military, appeared in the televised announcement of the Russian drawdown to praise Russia for its backing.

“The support that the Russian air force offered was crucial for our victories, which paved the way for a cease-fire and created the conditions for launching a political settlement of the Syrian crisis,” he told Gerasimov through a translator.

Its 55,000-ton aircraft carrier has for years been plagued by malfunctions and was ridiculed in Western media for the clouds of black smoke it belched on the way to Syria.

The current cease-fire, which does not include Islamic State and other jihadist groups, has been violated dozens of times.

If the peace talks scheduled for this month fail to occur or wind up collapsing — as previous talks have — it’s unclear whether Russian forces would continue to back the regime as it fights to recover rebel-held areas.

The Assad regime announced Thursday it was prepared to take on opposition forces in Idlib province, where rebels were sent after losing Aleppo.

Washington, which has called for Assad to be removed from power, has accused Russia and Assad’s forces of targeting so-called moderate rebels. Russia has insisted that thousands of its sorties that began in September 2014 were targeting Islamic State and other “terrorist groups.”

not abandoning its airbase near the Mediterranean city of Latakia or and a naval facility in the city of Tartus.

Maxim Shapovalenko, a Moscow-based defense expert, said the partial military withdrawal should come as little surprise.

“From the very start, Russia tried to achieve a goal of having all the forces in the Syrian conflict, both the ruling regime and the opposition, sit down for peace talks,” he said.

In eastern Syria this week, Kurdish-led forces claimed to have seized a hilltop castle overlooking a key territory held by Islamic State less than 20 miles from the group’s self-declared capital, Raqqa.

The Syrian army is also battling Islamic State militants to the south in Deir el-Zor province and Palmyra, which the jihadis recaptured last month.

There’s also fighting between the Syrian government and opposition groups in the Barada valley north of Damascus that has disrupted the water supply to millions in the Syrian capital.

The United Nation’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, said this week that it was impossible to tell if water supplies had been disrupted by Syrian government or rebel forces but warned that sabotaging them would be a war crime.

Mirovalev is a special correspondent. Staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Cairo.


UPDATES:

12:17 p.m.: This article was updated with political analysis from experts.

This article was originally published at 9:40 a.m.

This story reported that the civil war in Syria has claimed more than 40,000 lives. It should have said more than 400,000 lives.
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