Russia’s surprise decision to withdraw troops from Syria

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan explains the possible reasons behind Russia’s surprise decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to withdraw the bulk of Russia’s military presence in Syria came as a surprise, and appeared to be arrived at in a hurry which suggests it may have come as a reaction to something that angered the Russian leadership.

Official statements from Damascus and Moscow claim that the decision was agreed by both President Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Putin because the Russians had “accomplished their goal”; nevertheless the timing coincides with the resumption of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva which is likely significant. The UN was not infomred in advance of Putin’s decision.

There are two possible interpretations of events:

• First: the Russians really have accomplished all they set out to do, having provided air cover for Syrian army forces on the ground, enabling the regime to regain many areas lost to the armed opposition – especially in the countryside North of Aleppo – to close the Turkish-Syrian border, and lay siege to the city of Aleppo. This has placed the Assad regime in a stronger position to negotiate in Geneva.

• Second: the Russians are angered by remarks made by Syrian Foreign Minister last Saturday when he told a press conference: “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency … Bashar al-Assad is a red line…If the opposition continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva.” This stance was reinforced by the head of the Syrian government delegation to Geneva, Bashar Jaafari, on Sunday when he said it was too early to discuss a transitional period for Syria: “This discussion will come at appropriate time,” he told reporters. Two weeks ago, Assad himself told an interviewer that he would not leave power until he had regained all of Syria from the rebels.

President Putin spoke with US President Obama on Monday. The White House cautiously welcomed the Russian leader’s decision and underscored that a political settlement remains the goal. Both leaders may feel that the Syrian regime’s outspokeness, lack of diplomacy and inflexibility is jeopardising the peace process and Assad may be in breach of previous undertakings to Moscow.

Surprise decision

We admit we were surprised by this sudden and decisive move by Vladimir Putin just as the Geneva talks began. Russia’s warplanes are equal in sophistication and capability to America’s; withdrawing them leaves only the Syrian air force fleet which is outdated and comparatively inefficient. The move therefore forces the Syrian regime into negotiating, despite the opposition’s position in the negotiations which insists on the establishment of a transitional government with full powers, preceded by the departure of President Assad “dead or alive” as chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush put it on Sunday.

Yet the move also wrong-footed the opposition who were claiming that the Russians as well as the regime had violated the ceasefire repeatedly during the two weeks it has held.

Vladmir Putin has vowed to stand by Damascus
Vladmir Putin has vowed to stand by Damascus

The General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition, Riad Hijab, praised the Russian withdrawal and tweeted that: “The Russian announcement must be followed by additional moves to push the rest of the foreign forces out of Syria, especially the Iranian forces and the terrorist militias.”

The position of Iran is a crucial consideration; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif praised Russia’s withdrawal from Syria as a “good sign” that the ceasefire is durable. He told a press conference that: “Iran has long aspired for a lasting ceasefire in Syria, and Russia’s announcement that it would start withdrawing its forces from Syria indicates that it no longer deems military intervention vital to maintain the ceasefire.”

He added that: “By excluding ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra from the ceasefire, the world has delivered these organizations a message that it is united against them and that the fight against them will not abate.”

It appears that the Syrian regime has angered Moscow and the future of Assad – if he remains stubborn – appears to be less certain than it was a few days ago. But, after five years of war, Assad is determined to stay in power without any compromise, and will fight to the end, like Presidents Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

The coming days will doubtless be filled with surprises; meanwhile the Geneva conference stands at a cross-roads with total collapse in one direction, while the other is not about success, but gaining time for further manoeuvres.

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