Russia keeping its options open as its military forces leave Syria

Russia to pull its troops out of Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014.

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Story highlights

  • After more than 9,000 sorties, Russia is withdrawing warplanes from Syria
  • Russia's bombardment has aided Syria's President, provoked human rights complaints
  • Russia says its bases in Syria will stay, and a defense official says strikes against "terrorist targets" will continue

Moscow (CNN)At an air base south of Moscow, a crowd greets returning heroes as a rousing military march blares from loudspeakers.

Some of the women standing on the cold tarmac have flowers for the pilots, who line up for photographs as television cameras from Russian state media record the jubilant scene.
    From their studios in Moscow, the anchors talk excitedly of a mission accomplished.
    After more than 9,000 sorties, Russia has begun withdrawing warplanes from Syria. It could take days or weeks to complete, but Russian President Vladimir Putin's unexpected order is being quickly implemented.
    Defense officials have already released video of their planes making the long-distance flight home from their forward base near Latakia in Syria.
    Putin: Russian troops out of Syria
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    It was at a late-night meeting with his defense and foreign ministers that Putin announced his goals in Syria had been achieved and that the time had come, six months after intervening in Syria, to withdraw.
    "I believe the goal set out to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces has in large part been fulfilled," he said in a prepared statement on national television. "That is why I order the minister of defense to start the pullout of the main part of our military grouping from Syria."
    Russia's bombardment of Syria has been a game changer. The kind of overwhelming firepower Russia was able to bring to bear, from its most sophisticated warplanes, its ships and its submarines, was unprecedented in the Syrian war.
    Its ally, Bashar al-Assad, saw his fortunes on the battlefield transformed. With Moscow at his back, he bolstered his position in western Syria, then began retaking ground lost to rebels in the previous five years of conflict.
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    For the Kremlin, the survival of Assad equals the preservation of Russian interests in Syria. Its toehold in the Middle East is maintained, and its status on the global stage enhanced.
    There has been much criticism from human rights groups, most recently Amnesty International, that Russian planes targeted civilians -- strongly denied by the Kremlin -- and that Russian action increased the flow of refugees.
    But the intervention also undeniably forced the warring parties to negotiate. The Kremlin now says a political solution, to be hammered out in Geneva, Switzerland, is its main focus.
    What is also clear is that Russia is keeping its ability to resume airstrikes if and when it chooses.
    The Kremlin says its powerful air and naval bases in Syria will remain, and a senior Russian defense official told state media that strikes against "terrorist targets" would continue, despite the drawdown.
    Russia's war in Syria may, for the moment, be over. But this may not be last Syrians ever see of Russia's military might.