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Russia Pulls Out 'Small Number of Aircraft,' Continues Syria Airstrikes

The Pentagon said today that it hasn’t seen much withdrawal of Russian forces happening since President Vladimir Putin vowed to pull out of Syria.

President Obama spoke Monday by phone with Putin “to discuss progress on the implementation of the nationwide Cessation of Hostilities between the Syrian regime and its allies on the one hand and the armed opposition on the other,” according to a readout released by the White House.

“They discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities with the goal of advancing the political negotiations on resolution of the conflict,” the statement continued. “President Obama welcomed the much-needed reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation, but stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process.”

The Kremlin said Putin and ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also spoke by phone Monday “at Russia’s initiative,” but did not offer details.

According to Russian media, Putin said “the task that was assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces as a whole has achieved its goal, and so I order the defense minister to start tomorrow withdrawing the main part of our military factions from the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Russian airstrikes began in September. The Kremlin claimed they were aimed at ISIS, but the U.S. government consistently said they were instead striking foes of Assad, such as civilian areas in rebel-held territory.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters today that “we have seen some Russian aircraft depart Syria and return to Russia, but we’ve not seen a large contingent of Russian forces leave — just a small number of aircraft at this point.”

“And so we’ll wait to see, like everybody else, what the Russians do with regard to President Putin’s reference to a partial withdrawal,” Cook said. “And again, we’ve seen in the last 24 hours Russians continue to engage in some airstrikes in Syria, so I think obviously this is something we’ll wait to see exactly what transpires with regard to the Russians.”

Cook later said that only about 10 percent of the estimated number of Russian aircraft in Syria had left the country — “fewer than 10, at this point, is what we’ve seen depart in the last 24 hours.”

Appearing this morning with his Georgian counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Russia’s vow “that it will remove half of its forces immediately and more perhaps from Syria.”

“And with the political negotiations reconvening this week in Geneva, we have reached a very important phase in this process,” Kerry said.

Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze noted that Russia still occupies more than 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.