MOSCOW — Russia announced Friday that it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and some other Russian warships from the waters off Syria as the first step in a drawdown of its forces in the war-torn Mideast country.

According to Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier and accompanying ships are to be the first to leave.

The declaration comes a week after Russia and Turkey brokered a cease-fire in Syria, following a decisive Moscow-backed victory for the government of President Bashar Assad over rebels in the city of Aleppo.

It’s also the second time Moscow has announced scaling back its military presence in Syria since Russia threw its military weight behind the Syrian government in September 2015.

Russia’s support, with airstrikes and military advisers – along with the boosting of its arsenal and a naval base on the Syrian coast – changed the course of the civil war, now in its sixth year, in favor of Assad.

“In accordance with the decision by the supreme commander-in-chief (President) Vladimir Putin, the Defense Ministry is starting to downsize the grouping of armed forces in Syria,” Gerasimov said.

Last March, Putin also ordered the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, timing his declaration with a brief cease-fire in place at the time, one that was brokered by Moscow and Washington, and the launch of peace talks that took place in Geneva.

The latest declaration appeared designed to cast Russia as a peacemaker.

“The successes of the Syrian armed forces in the liberation of Aleppo have created the necessary conditions for the peaceful settlement of the conflict,” Gerasimov said. “I’m confident that it will lay the basis for the political settlement of the conflict.”

Syrian forces’ retaking of Aleppo last month and the subsequent cease-fire make Russian forces less critical to Assad at this juncture of the war – though it’s unclear how extensive the drawdown might be.

Syria’s army Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Ayoub visited the aircraft carrier Friday, according to Syrian state television. He said the Admiral Kuznetsov has become “part and parcel of the history of war on terrorism,” according to Al-Ikhbariya TV. He said that “signs of victory” loom after all the Syria military sacrifices and “Russia’s honorable position.”

Airstrikes from the Russian aircraft carrier began in mid-November and marked the first time it was used in combat. The ship has so far lost two aircraft – an Su-33 fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in December as it returned to the carrier following a sortie over Syria. In November, a MiG-29 crashed into the sea while trying to land on the vessel.

Russia and Turkey, a strong supporter of Syria’s moderate opposition, brokered the current cease-fire, which came into effect on Dec. 30. The truce has mostly held but not altogether halted fighting in the country.


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