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Russia Announces Military Drawdown in Syria
By Thomas Grove

MOSCOW -- Russia's top general said Friday his country would draw down its military presence in Syria, starting with a withdrawal of its warships from the eastern Mediterranean.

Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia's general staff, said Russia would withdraw the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from the waters off the coast of Syria. The ships deployed with the carrier in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will also be withdrawn, he said.

Whether the reduction in the number of ships also means an overall decrease in Russian firepower in the region or a scaling back of its military campaign in Syria wasn't known.

In October, Russia's parliament ratified an agreement that allows the Kremlin to indefinitely maintain a military deployment in Syria aimed at what it said was peace and stability in the region. On Dec. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the expansion of Russia's naval facility in Tartus.

There were no indications that the drawdown announced Friday is permanent or represents a diminished Russian commitment to keeping President Assad and his regime in power in Damascus.

Amid a shaky cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey, the spokesman for the rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zinki greeted reports of the drawdown with skepticism, saying Russia was likely to reintroduce its military forces if the truce collapses.

"Russia has previously announced that it would cease its operations and airstrikes," said the spokesman, Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq. "But in reality it increased its forces on the ground and entered the war in a direct way. So how can we trust them?"

Last March, the Kremlin announced a scaling back of its forces in Syria, saying Moscow's task there was largely accomplished. But bombing raids continued and increased as the battle for the northern Syrian city of Aleppo escalated late last year.

The naval battle group led by the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian navy's flagship, deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in the weeks leading to the final, successful push by regime forces to retake Aleppo's rebel-held eastern neighborhoods.

In his announcement Friday, Gen. Gerasimov said the Admiral Kuznetsov and other Russian naval forces were critical to the Syrian regime's success in the battle.

"The deployment of naval forces in the fight against terrorist groups allowed the liberation of Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria, in the shortest period of time," he said.

After Syrian government troops and their allies took full control of the city, Mr. Putin announced a nationwide cease-fire in Syria, followed by talks in the spring between the government and rebels.

The Russian leader said he would reduce Moscow's military contingent in the country but that Russia would continue to fight "terrorism" and to support the Assad government.

As the Admiral Kuznetsov ended its mission off Syria's coast on Friday, Syrian army chief Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub visited the ship, Syrian state media reported. The general acknowledged the important role played by Russian forces in the war and urged further military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus, it said.

Russia has maintained a flotilla of ships in the eastern Mediterranean and supplied Damascus with military aid for years, transferring the arms through its naval installation at Tartus. Its stepped-up intervention in Syria began in September 2015 with airstrikes against what it said were Islamic State targets.

Since then, Syrian rebels, their allies and supporters say, Moscow has targeted mostly those less extremist rebels groups fighting to unseat Mr. Assad. It has also negotiated cease-fires with both the U.S. and Turkey.

The Russian military has suffered only a handful of casualties during its intervention in Syria, including the deaths of one military adviser and two doctors in the weeks leading up to the retaking of Aleppo late last month. The government hasn't officially acknowledged casualties among private military contractors supporting its operations there.

Russia's Syria campaign has tested its navy. Two Russian aircraft fell into the Mediterranean while trying to land on the Admiral Kuznetsov, the country's sole aircraft carrier. The pilots were saved in both cases.

The defense ministry said Friday that Russia's military assets in Syria, including aircraft at a base in Hmeimim on the Syrian coast, was adequately protected by Russian-made S-300 and S-400 antiaircraft systems.

Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut contributed to this article.

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