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Russian Withdrawal Eases Attacks on Syrian Rebel Groups

In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Free Syrian Army fighters aim their weapons during clashes, in Damascus countryside, Syria on Monday, March 25, 2013.

Syrian regime forces have significantly reduced attacks on opposition groups since Russia declared its intention to withdraw most of its air and ground assets, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.

"We have seen a fairly notable reduction in the amount of activity against the opposition forces" following the surprise announcement of the withdrawal by Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

"It's difficult to tell" the long-term impact of the Russian move, Warren said, but "generally speaking -- of course, there are exceptions -- there haven't been significant operations against the opposition."

In a video briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad, Warren said that the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Russian backing were continuing to press an offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) near the historic town of Palmyra in eastern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that Assad's troops were conducting heavy shelling of Palmyra and its vicinity.

However, attacks on ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front would not be in violation of the loose guidelines of the "cessation of hostilities" brokered three weeks ago by United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura.

The U.S. military and Moscow differed widely on the pace of the Russian withdrawal. "We have seen a small handful of Russian aircraft depart -- eight to 10, somewhere in there," Warren said. "We've seen some movement of troops" but "no significant numbers of troops have departed. It's still too early to tell how this Russian withdrawal is going to develop."

In a statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense said a second "batch" of planes had left Syria on Wednesday, following another group that departed Tuesday shortly after Putin's announcement that his forces had completed their mission in Syria.

The ministry's statement said the second group of planes "took off from the airbase in Khmeimim (near northeastern Latakia) heading to places of permanent deployment on the territory of the Russian Federation." Without giving a number, the ministry said the second group of planes included Su-25 ground attack aircraft and an Il-76 cargo jet.

Despite the Russian announcements, Warren was wary of declaring that Russia was matching its words with actions. "We haven't seen a significant reduction of their combat power, and particularly their ground combat power remains static," Warren said. "It's difficult to know what their intentions are. As we compare their words to their actions, we'll have to wait and see what develops."

State Department spokesman John Kirby backed up Warren's assessment. "The Russians have largely been meeting their requirements under the cessation of hostilities," Kirby told CNN.

As a result, "for the first time in five years, organized violence is down" in Syria, Kirby said.

Coupled with Russia's stated intention to withdraw, "it could be a very positive sign," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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