Middle East

Syria conflict: Russia 'withdrawing aircraft carrier group'

Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bomber at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria Image copyright Russian Defence Ministry
Image caption Russian bombers turned the tide decisively in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Russia is starting to withdraw forces from Syria and its aircraft carrier group will be the first to leave, the Russian armed forces chief says.

The announcement comes days after Russia and Turkey negotiated a ceasefire in Syria which is largely holding, according to the UN.

Russia has carried out air strikes on anti-government rebels since 2015.

Moscow's involvement is credited with turning the war in favour of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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"In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian defence ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria," Gen Valery Gerasimov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Tasks set for the carrier group, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov vessel, had been completed, the commander of the Russian force in Syria Col-Gen Andrei Kartapolov was quoted as saying.

Col-Gen Kartapolov said Russia still had sufficient air defence capabilities in its S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems deployed in Syria, AFP news agency reported.

The force reduction follows an order from President Putin on 29 December, days after Syrian government troops finally ousted rebels from the key battleground city of Aleppo in their biggest victory since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.

Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, is now pushing for peace talks to be held later this month in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

Russia first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015, saying they were targeting the fighters of so-called Islamic State.

Last March, Russia announced it was withdrawing forces but continued air strikes.

End of a chapter, not an era - Jonathan Marcus, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The naval group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov has played a minor role in the fighting

This is not Russia's first "withdrawal" from Syria. In March 2016 President Putin announced the start of a pull-out. Some warplanes were flown out.

But Russia's military role continued and its air power remained decisive. Russia has aircraft, air defences and artillery deployed in Syria, along with many advisers working with Syrian government forces. But we have never been able to ascertain the exact scale of the Russian forces involved.

The initial phase of the Russian "draw-down" involves the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its naval group, which has hardly played a major role in the fighting. Russia's stated intention is to build up its bases in Syria for the long-term, but Mr Putin may be signalling that in Moscow's view, with the fall of Aleppo and the entrenchment of the Assad regime, one important phase of the fighting is over.