Monday

26th Feb 2018

Russia announces surprise withdrawal from Syria

  • Russia announces withdrawal from Syria where the civil war has been raging for five years (Photo: gov.uk)

Russian forces are preparing to leave Syria five and a half months after they began to bomb targets in what they called an anti-terror operation, but what Western governments condemned as a mission to help prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

Western officials cautiously welcomed the move by the Kremlin, which came after a telephone conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Assad on Monday (14 March).

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"The leaders noted that the actions of the Russian air force had allowed them to radically change the situation in the fight against terrorism, to disorganise the fighters' infrastructure and inflict significant damage on them," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Russia’s bombing campaign started on 30 September last year. It helped Assad's troops to recapture territory from rebels.

Russian aircraft flew more than 9,000 sorties, with media reports claiming their attacks caused civilian casualties and often targeted rebel-held areas despite the stated aim of anti-terrorism.

Deadlock on Assad

No details were given on how many planes and troops would be withdrawn or the deadline for completing the withdrawal.

It is also not clear how many troops Russia has in the Middle Eastern country, US estimates put the number of personnel between 3,000 and 6,000.

Russia however will continue to operate its air base in Latakia province in Syria, and its naval base at Tartus.

Meanwhile peace talks continue in Geneva, but hopes of a breakthrough are thin as all sides are in a deadlock over the future of Assad.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Russia’s withdrawal would increase pressure on Assad to negotiate.

Sanctions issue unresolved

Meanwhile on Monday EU foreign ministers discussed relations with Russia for the first time in a year.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said they had unanimity among the 28 on five broad principles.

These include Moscow fully respecting and implementing the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine.

They reiterated that the EU would not recognise Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, which the union regards as illegal.

The ministers also agreed to boost ties with nations in the former Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and strengthen resilience in areas like energy security.

EU countries should engage with Russia on foreign policy issues only where there is a clear EU interest, the ministers said, and the bloc promised to boost contacts with Russian civil society.

Although there is agreement on these wide principles, there is reportedly no consensus over whether to renew economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.

Hungary and Greece have both said they want to remove the sanctions, which expire at the end of July.

They say the measures have failed to change Russian policy and are damaging European economies.

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