MOSCOW -- Russia announced on Friday that it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and some other Russian warships from the waters off Syria as the first step in a drawdown of its forces in the war-torn Mideast country.
According to Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier and accompanying ships are to be the first to leave.
Gerasimov was quoted as saying by the state news agency Tass that “in accordance with the decision by the supreme commander-in-chief (President) Vladimir Putin, the Defense Ministry is starting to downsize the grouping of armed forces in Syria.”
Moscow has been a key supporter of President Bashar Assad’s government and forces in Syria’s devastating civil war.
Gerasimov did not give further details on the force reduction, which follows an order by Putin on Dec. 29.
Syrian forces’ retaking of the city of Aleppo last month and a subsequent Russia- and Turkey-brokered cease-fire, in place for nearly a week now, make Russian forces less critical to Assad, but it is unclear how extensive the drawdown might be.
Airstrikes from the Admiral Kuzetsov began in mid-November, the first time the carrier has been used in combat. It has lost two aircraft - an Su-33 fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in December as it returned to the carrier following a sortie over Syria. In November, a MiG-29 crashed into the sea while trying to land on the carrier.
Russia and Turkey, a strong supporter of Syria’s moderate opposition, brokered the current cease-fire, which came into effect on Dec. 30. The truce has mostly held but not altogether halted fighting in the country, and the government and opposition have blamed each other for violations.
The cease-fire is meant to pave the way for peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, later this month. The gathering could give new impetus for U.N.-mediated talks between Syria’s warring sides.