Russia starts scaling down Syria military deployment

Beirut: Russia’s military said on Friday it has begun scaling down its deployment to Syria, as the regime intensified its bombardment of a rebel-held district home to the capital’s main water source.
Moscow’s intervention in September 2015 helped turn the tide in favour of President Bashar al Assad, whose forces scored a major victory last month with the recapture of opposition stronghold east Aleppo.
Russia, along with fellow regime ally Iran and rebel backer Turkey, is pushing for peace talks to be held later this month in Kazakhstan.
But escalating fighting near Damascus, including reported barrel bombings, has undermined a fragile week-old nationwide ceasefire and left the talks in doubt.
The planned negotiations are the latest diplomatic initiative aimed at ending a nearly six-year conflict that has killed more than 310,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Turkey, which has worked closely with Russia to broker the ceasefire, has warned that the fighting is jeopardising the planned talks in Kazakhstan.
Russia’s military said a naval group headed by aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would leave the conflict zone under a drawdown ordered by President Vladimir Putin on December 29.
Aircraft from the carrier hit 1,252 “terrorist” targets during a two month mission, said Russia’s main commander in Syria, Andrei Kartapolov, quoted by Russian news agencies.
The Kuznetsov arrived off Syria in November as Russia boosted its firepower on land and in the Mediterranean to support regime forces targeting Aleppo.
The fall of the rebel-held east of the city was the regime’s biggest victory in more than five years of fighting.
Thousands of civilians and rebels left the besieged opposition enclave last month under a deal brokered by Moscow and Ankara.
Moscow had already announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces in March 2016, but ramped up its presence again as fighting increased.
Putin’s latest announced drawdown coincided with the declaration of a ceasefire between government and rebel forces that has led to sharp drop in fighting.
A major exception has been the rebel-held area of Wadi Barada near Damascus where the regime has stepped up air strikes as the rival sides trade blame over a cut to mains supplies to the capital.
Government aircraft on Friday dropped at least 10 barrel bombs, crude munitions notorious for the indiscriminate casualties they cause, on Wadi Barada, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A child was killed as clashes resumed in the area between pro-government forces and rebel fighters led by the Fateh al Sham Front, the British-based monitor said.— AFP