Russian warplanes began leaving Syria on Tuesday as Moscow started to draw down forces that have tipped the war President Bashar al-Assad’s way, and the U.N. envoy said he hoped the move would have a positive impact on peace talks under way in Geneva.
As the first aircraft touched down in Russia, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura called it a “significant development” and said he hoped President Vladimir Putin’s move would advance progress toward a solution and a peaceful political transition in Syria.
Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria has led Assad’s opponents to speculate Moscow may be trying to press him toward a political settlement, though Damascus has dismissed any talk of differences with its ally and says the move was coordinated.
It was unclear what the withdrawal would mean for the outcome of the war or for the future of Assad.
The talks under way in Geneva are part of a diplomatic push launched with U.S.-Russian support to end the five-year-long war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
US-Russian cooperation had already brought about a lull in the war going into the talks via a “cessation of hostilities agreement” that led to a sharp decline in fighting between rebels and the government in western Syria.
But the Syrian government, which had been losing ground to rebels before Russia intervened, had indicated it was no mood to compromise on the eve of the talks, calling the presidency a “red line” and ruling out a negotiated transfer of power.
The main opposition delegation wants Assad out of power by the start of a political transition. While some rebels have expressed guarded optimism at Putin’s announcement, others doubt Moscow is about to abandon the Syrian leader.
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 on Tuesday.
Between 200 to 300 servicemen, journalists and women greeted the pilots, waving Russian flags, balloons in red white and blue, and flowers. Two priests also attended the event, parading a religious icon.
At least six pilots in white helmets and aviator jackets were seen departing from about three planes.
They were mobbed by the crowd before being thrown in the air in celebration. A brass band played Soviet military songs, including the Stalin-era “March of the Aviators”, and the Russian national anthem.
Russia said however that it would keep its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, in Syria.