Russian cargo planes and fighter jets leave Hmeymim air base as Russia pulls out its air force from Syria. Rough Cut (no reporter narration).
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) STORY: More Russian warplanes took off from the Hmeymim airbase in Syria on Wednesday (March 16), flying back to their permanent bases in Russia. The warplanes included an Il-76 transport plane as well as Su-25 jets, the country's Defence Ministry said in a statement. The first Russian warplanes flew home from Syria on Tuesday (March 15) as Moscow started to withdraw forces that have tipped the war President Bashar al-Assad's way. Assad's opponents hope Putin's announcement that most Russian forces would be withdrawn signaled a shift in his support. However, its full significance is not yet clear: Russia is keeping an air base and undeclared number of forces in Syria. A number of Russian jets were still in action against Islamic State on Tuesday. Assad also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon's Hezbollah. Russia said last month Assad was out of step with its diplomacy, prompting speculation Putin is pushing him to be more flexible at the Geneva talks, where his government has ruled out discussion of the presidency or a negotiated transfer of power. Damascus has dismissed any talk of differences with its ally and says the planned withdrawal was coordinated and the result of army gains on the ground. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Putin's announcement and said he planned to visit Moscow next week for what he called the best opportunity in years to end the war. A top adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Tuesday Russian forces could return to Syria after withdrawing, and the United States now needed to pressure Turkey and Saudi Arabia to halt supplies to rebels.