Russia begins surprise withdrawal from Syria as peace talks get underway

Russian forces began to withdraw from Syria on Tuesday, hours after a surprise announcement from Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would end his nation’s military deployment as suddenly as he started it.

The pullback, which came as peace talks got underway in Geneva, threw a new twist into the bloody conflict, which marked its 5th anniversary on Tuesday. After rescuing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the verge of defeat, Putin now appears to be pressuring his longtime ally to reach a deal.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that “personnel are currently loading equipment, logistics support means and property onto military-transport airplanes.”

By midday in Syria, groups of Russia fighter jets and military transport planes were taking off from the coastal Hmeimim air base in Latakia on their way home to Russia.

 But even as Russian servicemen were departing, some limits on the withdrawal were already taking shape. Russia plans to leave its powerful S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in place in Syria, a senior Russian official said. That means that Russia will continue to control Syrian airspace, a powerful deterrent to nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia — and even the United States — that might contemplate instituting no-fly zones over parts of Syrian territory.

Russian advisers embedded with the Syrian military also planned to remain, Russian media reported, citing unnamed sources.

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