MOSCOW (AP) — Russia said Friday it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and other warships from the waters off Syria, following orders from President Vladimir Putin to scale back his forces as he casts himself as a peacemaker for the Middle Eastern country.
Russia's military support changed the course of the 6-year-old civil war in favor of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, bolstering his forces with long-range missile attacks and precise airstrikes, military advisers and a beefed-up naval base on the Mediterranean coast.
It is not clear how far Moscow intends to draw down its forces. Putin said Russia would continue fighting "international terrorism in Syria" and supporting Assad's military, an indication that Russia has no intention of leaving altogether.
However, the withdrawal is a show of confidence after the decisive victory last month by Assad and his allies over rebels in the northern city of Aleppo. A week ago, Russia helped broker a cease-fire with Turkey, which supports the opposition, paving the way for new peace talks, this time in Kazakhstan, a Moscow ally.
A day before the cease-fire took effect, Putin ordered the scale-back.
"The successes of the Syrian armed forces in the liberation of Aleppo have created the necessary conditions for the peaceful settlement of the conflict," Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov said. "I'm confident that it will lay the basis for the political settlement of the conflict."
The first forces to leave, he said, will be the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which was deployed in November at the height of the Aleppo offensive, and other, accompanying ships.
Moscow began its military intervention supporting Assad in September 2015. It announced a reduction in its forces once before, in March 2016 during a brief U.S.-Russian-brokered cease-fire and the launch of peace talks in Geneva. A few air units withdrew, but that truce quickly collapsed, peace talks went nowhere, and Moscow again threw renewed military might behind the Syrian government.
At the time, the U.S. estimated there were 3,000-6,000 Russian military personnel in Syria, a number that likely rose before the Aleppo offensive.
Airstrikes from the Kuznetsov began in mid-November and marked the first time it was used in combat. The ship has lost two aircraft — an Su-33 fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean 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 vessel.
Weeks of intensive airstrikes and a tightening siege on Aleppo caused rebel defenses to crumble, and they were forced to finally evacuate a small enclave of the city they controlled since 2012. The government declared Dec. 22 it had full control of the city, once Syria's bustling commercial capital.
Syria's army Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Ayoub visited the aircraft carrier Friday, according to Syrian state television.
He said the vessel has become "part and parcel of the history of war on terrorism," according to Al-Ikhbariya TV. He added that "signs of victory" loom after all the Syria military sacrifices and "Russia's honorable position."
The recapture of Aleppo by Syrian troops and the subsequent cease-fire make Russian forces less critical to Assad at this juncture of the war. The rebels are mostly concentrated in Idlib province, a stronghold in the north on the border with Turkey. They also have a presence around the capital, Damascus, where government and allied forces are focusing their efforts. Opposition groups say the fighting there violates the cease-fire and threatens the peace talks.
The cease-fire is meant to pave the way for 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. The truce, however, doesn't include areas controlled by the Islamic State group.