MOSCOW — Russian warplanes are continuing to conduct airstrikes in Syria, Russian military officials said Friday, making clear that the Kremlin intends to maintain muscular support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite an announced military drawdown earlier this week.
The announcement came a day after President Vladimir Putin said Russia could redeploy to Syria “within hours” if it wanted to. Russian warplanes are conducting 20 to 25 sorties a day to support the Syrian army’s attempt to reconquer the ancient city of Palmyra, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, a spokesman for the Russian military’s General Staff, said Friday.
That pace is slower than the more than 100 sorties a day the Russians were conducting in early February, before a shaky cease-fire took effect. But it is still a powerful indication that Putin has not abandoned Assad despite a hard-line stance taken by Syrian negotiators at peace talks in Geneva this week.
“The Russian aerospace forces will continue to deliver airstrikes upon the terrorist groups ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syrian territory,” Rudskoi told reporters at a briefing in Moscow, referring to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, respectively. The Islamic State took over Palmyra last summer.
The still-significant pace of strikes suggests that Russia retains a substantial number of warplanes at its Hmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia province even after the drawdown Putin announced Monday.
At the time, Russian officials said they would not abandon their fight against “terrorism” in Syria — a word they use to refer to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda but also to more moderate groups fighting Assad. The Syrian president is Russia’s major Arab ally, and the Russian military has had a presence in Syria since the Soviet era.
Russia has said it plans to leave its powerful S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in place in Syria, a deterrent against Turkey, Saudi Arabia and any other nation that might be tempted to engage in its own aerial intervention against Assad.
Fighting has diminished since the cease-fire went into effect three weeks ago, but the Syrian army has continued to battle its opponents on the ground, according to witnesses, Syrian rebel groups and U.S. officials. Opposition representatives at the deadlocked peace talks in Geneva this week were skeptical that the cease-fire could hold if there is no prospect of a lasting peace deal, since they see the current truce as locking in the Syrian army’s recent territorial gains.
Russian airmen coming home from Syria this week were greeted as victorious heroes, with public rhetoric suggesting that the deployment was truly winding down. Over the more than five months of airstrikes, Russia managed to secure Assad’s slipping hold on power. The Kremlin has also pressed the West to reengage after two years of isolation following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
That strategy appears to have worked: Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to visit Moscow next week to discuss Syria with top Russian officials.
Hugh Naylor in Beirut contributed to this report.