Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to continue supporting the Syrian government in its fight against armed groups – even as some of his forces withdraw from the country.
Speaking at the Kremlin on Thursday, three days after he ordered Russian forces to partially pull out from Syria, Putin said the move had been agreed with President Bashar al-Assad.
He added, however, that Moscow could relocate its military contingent back to the country “within a few hours”, if needed.
“If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal,” Putin said, repeating that Moscow would keep a contingent at its air and naval bases in Syria.
The Russian leader also said Moscow would continue to carry out air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), al-Nusra Front and other “terrorist” groups.
His remarks came after a leading Russian general told local media that Moscow would complete the withdrawal of most of its forces in Syria before the end of the week.
In an interview with Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Viktor Bondarev, the commander of the country’s air force, said the withdrawal “will be over very quickly”.
He added: “Within the timeframe determined by (the president) and the defence minister. Today or tomorrow … within two to three days we will complete the task.”
The interview was published in the newspaper on Thursday, but was put online late on Wednesday. It was not clear precisely when the general made his remarks.
The first group of Russian warplanes that left Syria arrived in Russia on Tuesday, while the second group of jets left the Khmeimim airbase in Syria on Wednesday.
The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has never been revealed, but US estimates suggest it varies from 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel on the ground.