– Moscow says Russian warplanes have started to leave Syria
– Russian jets help Syrian army advance near Palmyra
– UN convoys trying to reach besieged Syrian towns this week
– Al-Nusra Front vows new offensive after Russian pullout
– Syrian arrested in Sweden for war crimes

Moscow says Russian warplanes have started to leave Syria

Putin on Monday ordered the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces in Syria, a surprise move that reflected what he called the Kremlin’s achievement of nearly all its objectives in the war-torn country. A first group of Russian military planes on Tuesday left Moscow’s base in Syria heading for home, the defence ministry said. “The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hemeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that they included Su-34 bombers and a Tu-154 transport plane. Putin said Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria’s Latakia province. Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Monday that Russia’s decision to begin withdrawing from Syria will help Moscow’s push to reach a political settlement. [AFP, AP, Reuters, NYT, WSJ, BBC, 3/15/2016]

Russian jets help Syrian army advance near Palmyra
A Syrian monitoring group is reporting intense airstrikes in and around the historic town of Palmyra amid fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Syrian troops backed by Russian air power made major gains to the west of the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station reported Tuesday. It said the Syrian troops were supported by “heavy air cover from Russian jets.” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) says there were casualties on both sides in Tuesday’s battles, without providing a precise figure. Al-Manar TV, run by Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, says Syrian troops and their allies captured “Hill 900,” which is the highest in the area and overlooks Palmyra. [AP, Reuters, 3/15/2016]

UN convoys trying to reach besieged Syrian towns this week
United Nations aid convoys were unable to deliver life-saving supplies to four besieged Syrian towns of Zabadani, Fuaa, Kefraya and Madaya, on Monday due to “security concerns” but will try again on Thursday, a UN spokesman said. Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said a separate aid convoy would go to the town of Bloudan in Rural Damascus on Wednesday. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Al-Nusra Front vows new offensive after Russian pullout
On Tuesday al-Nusra Front is preparing to launch a new offensive a jihadist commander said after Russia announced the withdrawal of its forces from the war-torn country. “It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next forty-eight hours al-Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria,” a commander of the group told AFP via Skype. “The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia,” he said, referring to the provincial capital of the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect. [AFP, 3/15/2016]

Syrian arrested in Sweden for war crimes
A 45-year-old Syrian man with a Swedish residency permit has been arrested for alleged war crimes in northern Syria, officials said Tuesday. Haisam Omar Sakhanh, was arrested Friday and remanded in custody in Orebro, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Stockholm. He was detained on Monday night as part of an investigation into acts committed in the province of Idlib but the prosecutor gave no details of the alleged crimes. The Swedish daily Expressen said he is suspected of having participated in the execution-style murder of seven men in Idlib in April 2012. A video originally published by The New York Times in 2013 graphically shows the execution of the men with their hands tied behind their backs. It is alleged that Sakhanh was one of the executioners. [AFP, NYT, 3/15/2016]