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Originally posted in The Daily Express.
The first Russian warplanes arrived home today after Moscow’s shock announcement that its jets would begin departing after a five-and-a-half-month bombing campaign.
The Russian president claimed it was “mission accomplished” and time to draw down forces in a war that has tipped the balance of power in favour of President Bashar al-Assad.
But despite the eye-catching footage released by the Kremlin of Russian war planes returning to jubilant crowds, analysts believe much of Moscow’s involvement in the conflict has been about imposing its military might on the Middle East.
According to Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, “Russia is scaling back its military presence in Syria, but it is not a withdrawal in any meaningful sense”.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, he said: “Putin has said that Russia’s military bases will continue to operate, which suggests that Russia’s air force will continue to offer air support to Assad’s forces.
“The infrastructure that is left allows Putin to restart Russia’s military operation in Syria should he want to.”
Such is the distrust of Russia that British foreign secretary Philip Hammond warned observers against rushing to any conclusions.
He told MPs that Russia’s previous pledge to pull forces out of Ukraine later turned out to be “merely routine rotation” and that he had seen no detailed plans for Moscow’s latest surprise withdrawal.
And rebel groups in Syria, where fighting has raged for five years, said they did not believe the Russians were changing course.
When Russia launched airstrikes in Syria last September, it was done so under the guise of defeating Islamic State (ISIS).
But Mr Foxall said Mr Putin had “failed in objective to defeat ISIS”.