Around a dozen Russian warplanes stand on the tarmac at the Hmeimim base inside government-held territory on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Nearby the giant radar of an S-400 air defense system – the most modern in Russia’s arsenal – whirs nonstop.
A month ago Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the West by ordering the “main part” of his forces to pull out – just as he had when launching Moscow’s bombing campaign in Syria around five months earlier to aid the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) efforts to crush the insurgency in the country.
In total, the Russian Air Force has carried out 9,000 bombing raids on Islamist militants in Syria. Putin said Russia’s warplanes had “on the whole” completed their task.
“More than 20 planes have been withdrawn – including Su-34 jets, Su-24 and all the Su-25s. Also helicopters have been withdrawn – some Mi-8, Mi-24,” Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov said during the return flight to Moscow.
“Less than half of the aircraft we had have remained.”
The partial withdrawal, however, does not mean that Moscow’s forces are not still heavily involved in the fighting in Syria.
Due to the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria, government troops – backed by Russian airstrikes – have captured a string of towns, including Palmyra and al-Qaryatayn from ISIS most recently.
Moscow does admit that its advisers and special operations forces on the ground played an “essential” role in planning the operations and guiding Russian airstrikes.
Putin said that he could ramp up his forces in Syria in the space of “several hours” if the gains that Moscow has helped win appear to be unraveling.
Military spokesman Konashenkov insisted that Moscow has left enough hardware behind in Syria to carry out all the tasks it needs to.
“Our base is fully equipped and has everything that is necessary to both make sure it can function autonomously and in order to carry out different military operations,” Konashenkov said.
“Everything that we need is still there.”