According to Russian Kommersant media outlet, Russia may pull some of its forces out of Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s government forces control approximately 95% of Syrian territories, and the final offensive doesn’t require vast support. If the plan comes to fruition, only the military police, military advisers and the personnel necessary for the security of assets in Khmeimim and Tartus will remain in Syria. Kommersant’s sources say that the mixed Russian Aerospace Forces units may be skeletonized, but the anti-aircraft systems that cover Russian assets will remain. The focus will change to regulating the crisis by political means.
According to Kommersant, the information comes from two military-diplomatic sources. Having said that the decision is not final, they told Kommersant that the plan entails partially downsizing the mixed aviation units at Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia province and sending some personnel back to their stations in Russia, engineers and technical personnel among them. One of the sources said that Putin has final say on the matter. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant that “decisions like that are not announced beforehand”, and the Defense Ministry said that there are no current plans to downsize the aviation units in Syria.
The Syrian Arab Army’s successful assault on ISIS and the al-Nusra Front may be the reason for downsizing the aviation units in Syria. During a meeting with Israel’s Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman on October 16, Russia’s Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, stated that the operation in Syria is “nearing its end”. During an Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their partners meeting on Luzon island in Philippines, he added that the terrorists control less than 5% of Syrian territories (comparatively, before the start of the Russian operation in September of 2015 they were in control of 70%). According to the data he provided, in two years Russian aviation forces have destroyed 948 training camps, 666 regular and munition factories and approximately 1,500 vehicles. “The restoration process began: 1,12 million people went back to their homes, with 660 thousand people doing so in 2017 alone”, Shoygu said.
There are dozens of Russian planes (Su-25SM, Su-24M and Su-34 with MiG-29SMT, Su-30SM and Su-35C jets) and helicopters (military Ka-52, Mi-35M, Mi-24P, Mi-8AMTS and Mi-171) in Syria. There is no information available regarding which aircraft are to be sent back to their stations, although the previous downsizings ordered on March 14 and December 29 of 2016 saw the number of aircraft stationed at Khmeimim roughly cut in half. Kommersant cites Russian experts that say that the most valuable planes would be the first to go, and the old ones would stay, like the Su-24, as they’re somewhat disposable. Experts also say that the drones are likely to stay.
According to Kommersant’s sources, currently the Euphrates valley and some of the Syrian-Iraqi border are the only sizeable regions under terrorist control. Some terrorist celles are also present in smaller territories, like near Uqayribat and Idlib.