Hero’s welcome for first Russian warplanes back from Syria

Once the pilots disembarked from the aircraft they were tossed in the air in celebration as cheering supporters clutched national flags, flowers and balloons, national television showed in a live broadcast.

BEIRUT // Russia’s surprise withdrawal from Syria has been hailed by rebels and activists, who see it as a major blow for the regime of president Bashar Al Assad.

“Our morale is sky high. The regime will not be able to survive alone,” said Raed Al Elewi, a commander for the Jaish Al Tahrir rebel group in Syria’s central Hama province.

“This is a victory. Russia has not succeeded in fulfilling its goal of saving Assad.”

President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered the “main part” of Russia’s troops and aircraft out of Syria, nearly six months after launching an air campaign in support of his ally, Mr Al Assad.

The intervention helped the Syrian army and loyalist militias – exhausted after years of war – to go on the offensive and recapture several areas that they had lost to the opposition.

The first Russian warplanes returned home on Tuesday but Russian helicopters carried out air strikes around the ancient city of Palmyra.

“Russian helicopters and warplanes that are probably Russian are bombarding ISIL positions near Palmyra,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain.

“These strikes have allowed regime troops to advance and they are now 4 kilometres south and west of Palmyra.”

In the United States, secretary of state John Kerry said he would travel to Russia next week for what he called possibly the best chance in years to end the civil war in Syria.

Mr Kerry said on Tuesday that he would meet Mr Putin and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. He said the ceasefire was largely holding as peace talks resumed in Geneva this week.

“Today, as we mark the fifth anniversary of the start of this horrific war, we may face the best opportunity that we have had in years to end it,” said Mr Kerry.

Those Russian pilots who went home on Tuesday were given a heroes’ welcome.

Su-34 strike fighters landed at an airbase outside the city of Voronezh, 580km south-east of Moscow, after a fly-past for commanders, relatives and friends.

The Russian withdrawal “shows that they were unable to bring an end to the revolution,” Mr Najjar said.

“Russia will go down in history as having assisted the killer Bashar in the past five months, resulting in civilian deaths and the destruction of dozens of hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure,” said Mr Najjar, a leading commander of the Jabha Shamiya.

“The revolution will continue until the fall of the regime.”

On Tuesday morning, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, took advantage of Russia’s announcement, with a commander an offensive against the government “within the next 48 hours”.

“Had it not been for the Russian warplanes we would have been in Latakia city,” he said. The city is the provincial capital of the heartland of Mr Al Assad’s Alawite sect.

Also on Tuesday, a senior Iraqi intelligence official and Mr Abdel Rahman said ISIL commander and feared ethnic Chechen fighter Omar Al Shishani had died of wounds suffered in a US airstrike in Syria this month

Al Shishani died on Monday outside Raqqa, ISIL’s main stronghold in Syria, they said.

There was no immediate confirmation of his death from ISIL but the Aamaq news agency, which is affiliated to the group, denied it, saying that “he was not subjected to any injury”.

* Agence France-Presse