MOSCOW/BEIRUT/GENEVA Russian warplanes flew home from Syria on Tuesday as Moscow started to withdraw forces that have tipped the war President Bashar al-Assad's way, and the U.N. envoy said he hoped the move would help peace talks in Geneva.
As the first aircraft touched down in Russia, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura called President Vladimir Putin's move a "significant development" towards resolving a crisis which this week passes its fifth anniversary.
While Assad's opponents hope the announcement signals a shift in Russian support, its full significance has yet to become clear: Russia is keeping an air base and an undeclared number of forces in Syria.
Russian jets were in action against Islamic State on Tuesday. Assad also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Putin's surprise announcement has led to speculation that Moscow may want to press Assad towards showing more flexibility at the Geneva talks, where his government has ruled out discussion of the presidency or a negotiated transfer of power.
Damascus has dismissed any talk of differences with its ally and says the move was coordinated and the result of army gains on the ground. Russia, however, last month expressed frustration with Assad, saying he was out of step with its diplomacy.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, whose government supports the opposition, indicated the gaps in Western understanding of Putin, saying he had "no insight at all into Russia's strategy" after a decision that came out of the blue.
The West had been equally surprised by Putin's decision to intervene. "Unfortunately none of us knows what the intent of Mr Putin is when he carries out any action, which is why he is a very difficult partner in any situation like this," he said.
"MOMENT OF TRUTH"
The Geneva talks are part of a diplomatic push launched with U.S.-Russian support to end the war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world's worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State. Opening the indirect talks, de Mistura said Syria faced a "moment of truth".
The opposition, which was due to meet de Mistura on Tuesday, said it was not against a direct meeting with the government.
U.S.-Russian cooperation had already brought about a lull in the war via a "cessation of hostilities agreement" that led to a sharp decline in fighting between rebels and the government in western Syria, though many violations have been reported.
The Syrian government, which had been losing ground to rebels before Russia intervened, had indicated it was in no mood to give ground to the opposition on the eve of the talks that started on Monday, calling the presidency a "red line".
A peace process for Syria endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in December calls for a Syrian-led process that establishes "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance", a new constitution, and free, fair elections within 18 months.
The main opposition delegation wants Assad out of power by the start of a transition. While some rebels have expressed guarded optimism at Putin's announcement, others doubt he is about to put serious pressure on Assad.
"We do not trust them," said Fadi Ahmad of the First Coastal Division, who says his rebel group has been fighting a Russian-backed government offensive near the Turkish border throughout the cessation agreement that came into effect on Feb. 27.
Russian television showed the first group of Russia’s Su-34 fighter plane task force returning from Syria and landing at an air base in southern Russia.
PILOTS WELCOMED, RUSSIAN JETS STAGE STRIKES
The pilots were greeted by between 200 to 300 servicemen, journalists, and their wives and daughters, waving Russian flags, balloons in red white and blue, and flowers. Two priests also attended the event, parading a religious icon.
They were mobbed and thrown in the air by the crowd. A brass band played Soviet military songs and Russia's national anthem.
Their air campaign has mostly targetted insurgents battling Assad in western Syria, helping Damascus and allies including Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards to reclaim important ground near the borders with Turkey and Jordan.
According to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russia in the course of the operation flew more than 9,000 sorties. Military officials say they destroyed arms dumps, weapons, and fuel supplies being used by what they designated “terrorists”.
The Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, which reports on the war using sources on the ground, says Russian air strikes have killed more than 1,700 civilians. Moscow denies that.
Russia's military role has also expanded since September to include participation in the planning of military operations.
Showing Russian warplanes were still active in Syria, heavy Russian air support was reported to help the Syrian army make major gains against Islamic State near the ancient city of Palmyra. IS is not included in the cessation of hostilities.
Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, meanwhile, said the Russian move was a "natural development of halt to combat operations".
The main opposition alliance, which says the government's rejection of a transition sought to halt the talks before they started, said it hoped Russia's move could lead to an end to the war, but wanted to see change on the ground.
"MESSAGE TO ASSAD"
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by telephone on Monday about Syria, with the Kremlin saying the two "called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement".
Putin said Russia had largely fulfilled its objectives of a campaign which has so far cost Russia $700-$800 million according to a Reuters estimate, an additional financial burden for Moscow at a time of low oil prices.
Russia, which has haunting memories of its decade-long war in Afghanistan, said it would be keeping its most advanced air defence system, the S-400, in Syria.
A Western diplomat said Putin would "now move to focus on the peace talks and this will put pressure on the Syrian government to negotiate". The diplomat added: "We don’t know if he is giving up on Assad but we know that the Russians are delivering a message to Assad that they are keen on negotiations over transition to proceed."
Russia has previously called on Syria to prepare for presidential elections. The Syrian foreign minister said on Saturday these were the "exclusive right" of the Syrian people as he instructed his delegation to keep them off the agenda.
On the question of Assad, Moscow has said it is up to the Syrian people, not outside powers, to decide. Even Assad's enemies in the West have moved away from the demand he leave power right away.
Both Moscow and Tehran have an interest in his survival as a guarantor of both their interests.
Syrian opposition figure Maan Abdul Salam said: "I don't think Russia is giving up on Assad yet. It is changing its tactics and the opposition needs to be ready for all possibilities."
Senior Iranian official Ali Larijani said after talks in Tehran with a Syrian delegation that his country would keep up its support for the government in its "confrontation with terrorism", the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Dominic Evans, Stephanie Nebehay, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Samia Nakhoul, Tom Miles, William James, Jason Bush, Jack Stubbs; Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Peter Millership)
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2016 19:19 PM