Fewer Russian jets on ground in Syria but Moscow still key to fighting


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Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet at Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet at Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria


Around a dozen Russian warplanes stand on the tarmac at the Hmeimim base inside government-held territory on Syria's Mediterranean coast.
Nearby the giant radar of an S-400 air defence system -- the most modern in Russia's arsenal -- whirs non-stop.
A month ago Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the West by ordering the "main part" of his forces to pull out -- just as he had when launching Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria around five months earlier to back up ally Bashar al-Assad.
After regime troops managed to claw back key territory, Putin said Russia's warplanes had "on the whole" completed their task after flying some 9,000 bombing raids over Syria.
Since then Russian state media has shown a string of fighter jets returning home to be greeted by brass bands and much fanfare.
On the ground now at the Russian base in Syria -- at least during a tightly-controlled tour for journalists organised by the defence ministry in Moscow -- the situation appeared to have changed strikingly.
When an AFP correspondent visited during an earlier press trip at the height of the air campaign in December, the deafening roar of jets taking off on bombing runs was almost constant.
This time, no jets could be heard and the number of aircraft stationed there had dropped visibly.
"More than 20 planes have been withdrawn -- including Su-34 jets, Su-24 and all the Su-25s. Also helicopters have been withdrawn -- some Mi-8, Mi-24," Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov told AFP during the return flight to Moscow.
"Less than half of the aircraft we had have remained."
Palmyra and Al-Qaryatain
The partial withdrawal, however, does not mean that Moscow's forces are not still heavily involved in the fighting in Syria.
Since the Kremlin said it was scaling down its air presence in the country, regime forces -- backed up crucially by Russian firepower -- have in fact scored some of their most dramatic successes in areas not covered by the February ceasefire.
On March 27 Syrian forces reclaimed the world heritage site of Palmyra from the Islamic State group and on April 4 they retook the jihadist bastion of Al-Qaryatain.
Standing next to the gutted remains of a former cultural centre that served as an IS headquarters in the heart of devastated Al-Qaryatain, Syrian army colonel Ezdasher Mando said Russian air power had played a key role in the town's recapture.
"The fighters from (IS) had set up fortified positions all around here," he told journalists.
"With the help of Russian aviation the Syrian army and militias could gradually get closer and closer."
A Russian Defence Ministry photo reportedly shows an army sapper working in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.
Russia's military says its main role was using its airpower to wipe out IS positions in the hills around the towns and then blast convoys of reinforcements as they tried to join the fighting.
They say attack helicopters -- more suited to backing up infantry operations on the ground -- played a key part but were limited mainly to night time strikes due to their vulnerability from the ground.
In terms of ground forces, the official narrative remains that Russian artillery and troops are not engaged directly in frontline fighting.
Moscow does admit that its advisors and special operations forces on the ground played an "essential" role in planning the operations and guiding Russian airstrikes.
In a rare move during the operation to retake Palmyra, Moscow announced one special ops soldier helping to target Russia's bombing was killed when he called in an air strike on himself after being surrounded by IS fighters.
'Still enough forces'
Despite Russia appearing to scale down its presence after a game-changing intervention to shore up Assad's crumbling forces, its military role in Syria appears far from over.
The situation remains intensely volatile with the ceasefire frequently violated and peace talks making little headway.
On Monday jihadists from Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra and allied rebels pressed offensives against regime troops in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, a monitoring group said.
In recent days Russia has warned that Al-Nusra has taken over or subsumed groups in areas around Aleppo and has massed thousands of fighters.
Putin said that he could ramp up his forces in Syria in the space of "several hours" if the gains that Moscow has helped win appear to be unravelling.
Military spokesman Konashenkov insisted that Moscow has left enough hardware behind in Syria to carry out all the tasks it needs to.
"Our base is fully-equipped and has everything that is necessary to both make sure it can function autonomously and in order to carry out different military operations," Konashenkov said.
"Everything that we need is still there."

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