A 16-ship Russian naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean remains on post, reports said. Cyprus has made its ports available to the Russian fleet if needed.
Word that Russian forces had pulled out of Syria first came in an interview with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister, published in the newspaper al-Hayat on Friday. Russian newspapers and agencies reported Wednesday that they had confirmed the evacuation with unnamed personnel in Russia’s military and Foreign Ministry.
“We have neither servicemen nor civilians in Syria anymore,” the newspaper Vedomosti reported, quoting an unnamed Defense Ministry employee. “Or Russian military instructors assigned to units of the Syrian regular army, for that matter.”
Russia’s withdrawal of troops comes even though the port city of Tartus — a government stronghold and home to a large community of Alawites, members of the Shiite-affiliated sect to which Assad belongs — has remained relatively unscathed by the violence that has convulsed Syria’s other major cities.
The regime has tightened its grip on the area as Assad’s forces push to secure territory that connects government-held coastal areas with the capital, Damascus. The rebel-held town of Tal Kalakh, about 15 miles southeast of Tartus, fell under complete government control Tuesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A person with knowledge of the Kremlin’s decision told Russia’s RT television channel that the withdrawal reflected concerns about the risks posed by Syria’s ongoing civil war, as well as the fear of an incident involving the Russian military that could have larger consequences.
In his interview with al-Hayat, Bogdanov strove to minimize the base’s importance.
“I lived in Syria for 10 years and visited this location many times when we had an actual military presence there,” he was quoted as saying. “We never, at any time, had a real military base in Tartus. This is a maintenance center for ships that pass through the Mediterranean, a technical center. There is not even a deep dock that allows ships to approach, refuel or undergo repairs. This center has no military or strategic significance.”
No ships have called at Tartus since April, Vedomosti reported.
Russia has been flying its citizens out of Syria all spring. Bogdanov said that about 30,000 Russians live throughout the country, some in rebel-held areas. On Wednesday, 128 Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics left on planes that had delivered what was described as humanitarian supplies the day before, the Interfax news agency reported.
More than 100,000 people have died in the 27-month-long conflict, the Observatory announced Wednesday. Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, backed by militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, have made creeping gains in recent months.
The fall of Tal Kalakh follows the seizure of Qusair, a town close to the Lebanese border, and further chokes rebel supply lines from neighboring countries.
The Syrian opposition has made desperate pleas for the United States to follow through on its decision to arm the rebels, after it cited evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, the “red line” for the Obama administration. Britain and the United States have notified the United Nations of 10 instances in which chemical weapons were allegedly used, a U.N. diplomat told the Associated Press on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the incidents have not been publicly divulged.
Given the Assad government’s gains, the Russian decision to pull out of Tartus might represent a calculation about potential intervention, either from the United States over the regime’s alleged chemical weapons use or from Israel, which has said that it will strike if advanced surface-to-air missiles are delivered to the Syrian regime, according to Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.
“It would explain something that otherwise seems counterintuitive,” Tabler said. “If the regime is doing well, you don’t close your base.”
The news of the pullout comes as Russian and U.S. diplomats have been meeting to try to arrange a peace conference on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are to discuss the conference when they meet next week in Brunei.
It does not appear that the pullout from Tartus will interfere with the delivery of air-defense and anti-ship missiles by Russia to Syria. Bogdanov again defended the shipments of arms as legal and part of an existing contract. Asked when the deliveries would begin, he said that was a decision for the “supreme command.”
Vladimir Yevseyev of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations told Vedomosti that Russian civilian specialists could be left in Syria to maintain weapons after they are delivered. The missiles would not be of much use against the rebels, military analysts say, but they would change the balance of forces in the Middle East, boosting Syria’s defensive capability against Israel.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said in an e-mail that the United States would not speculate on the reasons for the Russian move but added, “As we have said many times before, the situation on the ground has grown worse and more dangerous with the influx of foreign fighters from Iran and [Hezbollah].”
Karen DeYoung, traveling with Kerry, and Loveday Morris in Beirut contributed to this report.