The reduced Russian forces in Syria will keep waging a war on ISIS and Al Nusra
You've heard about the news that Putin ordered the bigger part of his Syria expeditionary force home, you've read the (correct) interpretations that this includes the actual strike aircraft, and you've seen images from the pilot's actual return to Russia. It all checks out. Russian strike element in Syria is going home.
That is not the entire story, however, because it turns out:
HMEIMIM, Syria, March 15 (TASS) - Russia’s aviation group in Syria will continue delivering strikes on facilities of terrorists, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov said on Tuesday.
"Certain positive results have been reached. A real chance has emerged to bring an end to the long-time conflict and violence. However, it is early to speak about the victory over terrorism now," Pankov said.
"Russia’s aviation group has the task to continue delivering strikes on the facilities of terrorists," he told an event marking the accomplishment of tasks in Syria by Russian forces.
Pankov reminded that the ceasefire, which came into effect in Syria on February 27, is not applied to the Islamic State and Jabhat an-Nusra "or other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council."
The Russian Deputy Defense Ministry points out there is no truce in place with ISIS or the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front and vows to keep delivering strikes against them. Also it is clear that he is not talking about long range strikes from Russian airfields or the Caspian or Mediterranean seas. It's clearly "Russia’s aviation group in Syria" that will continue its war.
It seems now we finally have the full story of the Russian "withdrawal". The withdrawal is real, but is partial. The emphasis will be on monitoring the truce as Russia hopes for a political solution, but meanwhile a reduced strike force will continue at it against ISIS and Al Nusra, albeit possibly at a much lesser intensity and with a lower profile.
In fact Russian aircraft are reportedly continuing to support the ongoing Syrian army offensive against ISIS in Palmyra.
Coupled with the explanation that Russia's land-based anti-aircraft systems are not part of the withdrawal this makes it clear the overall geo-strategic situation has not changed. That is to say that albeit the Damascus government will now enjoy less direct Russian assistance in fighting the jihadis on the ground, it has not been left to the mercy of a possible Turkish or Saudi invasion or strike. (Or a Western "no-fly zone" for that matter.)