Putin’s decision to withdraw Russian forces from Syria!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced out of the blue on March 14 that the main part of Russian armed forces in Syria will start to withdraw, also telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as UN-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war. First Putin said at a Kremlin meeting with his defence and foreign ministers that those Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria and he would order the withdrawal the main part of “our military contingent” from Syria.
Vladimir Putin said the withdrawal decision was discussed and coordinated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, adding that “the fundamental tasks” set for the Russian armed forced in Syria were resolved. “It was agreed to withdraw main body of the Russian air forces. At the same time Russia would preserve an air flight control center in Syrian territory to monitor the ceasefire regime,” according to an online Kremlin press release. But the Russian leader signaled Moscow would keep a military presence at the port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia province, from which Russia has launched most of its air strikes. Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.”
Russian president said that his armed forces would start completely pulling out of Syria over five months after he ordered the launch of a military operation that shored up his ally, Syrian President al-Assad. Reports suggested Russian forces are already leaving Syria, surprising USA, Assad, the opposition and the entire world because no one knew for sure how many years the Russian forces would stay in Syria. Assad has given golden opportunity to send military to Arab world, through Syria.
Earlier, Putin had ordered an intensification of Russia’s diplomatic efforts to achieve a peace deal to end the civil war in Syria that has dragged on for five years, killed thousands of people and displaced millions, many of them seeking refuge in Europe. As ceasefire effort did not work out well, the western diplomats speculated President Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed over 250,000 people, although US officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out.
Syrian war has displaced almost half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces. The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas. The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad’s opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table. The talks must focus on political transition, which is the “mother of all issues”, the UN envoy said.
Putin’s announcement appeared timed to coincide with peace talks in Geneva that have been dominated by a disagreement over Assad’s fate. Russia said its first jets have left Syria and are on their way back to Russia. But Putin gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria’s Latakia province.
Earlier, Russia, on instruction from President Putin, had launched air strikes in September followed by a massive troop deployment, turning the tide of a long and brutal war in Syrian President’s favor, rescuing his regime from the brink of collapse and his own life out of danger. Speculation was that Russia would keep its forces in Syria as USA is doing the same in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad’s favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including US-made anti tank missiles. The anti-Assad opposition which lost hopes of removing Assad from power, simply expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying “nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind”. Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists. Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted skeptically.
The Russian withdrawal move was announced on the day UN-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva. The Geneva talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month’s “cessation of hostilities”, sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad’s government and many of his foes. In Geneva, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura told the warring parties there was no “Plan B” other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a “clear roadmap” for Syria failed to make progress.
Russia said it was in Syria to fight Islamist terror groups, but a large part of its air strikes were on anti-Assad groups which Washington and its allies designate as moderate opposition groups. Opposition fighters have alleged that Russia had combat troops on the ground fighting anti-Assad forces, but the Kremlin has never acknowledged this and so it was unclear if such forces would be covered by the withdrawal.
Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. “Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go,” he said. A European diplomat was also sceptical. “It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” the diplomat said.
Moscow gave Washington no advance warning of Putin’s announcement. Even Americans had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia’s military for the withdrawal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad’s future – the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.
US President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed Moscow’s planned military drawdown in Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities. The White House announced this on March 14, hours after a shock announcement that signals a new phase in the five-year-old conflict. Russia has remained steadfast in its public support of Assad, while opposition groups — the USA and key European countries — have called on Assad to go as part of a negotiated transition. “A political transition is required to end the violence in Syria,” Obama said.
Syrian government rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in “confronting terrorism”.
Continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the cessation of hostilities and the UN-led political process. A recent “cessation of hostilities” has been frequently breached but, Obama said, led to a “much-needed reduction in violence”. The White House sought to turn the screws on Assad, just as his backing from Russia was called into question.
By signaling the start of a withdrawal, Russia is likely to soothe tense relations with the USA, which has accused the Kremlin of inflaming the Syrian conflict and pursuing its own narrow interests. “I think we did it to show the Americans that we do not have military ambitions and don’t need unnecessary wars,” said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow. “They have been accusing us of all kinds of things and this is a good way of showing them they are wrong.”
Through its intervention in Syria, Putin has restored Russia status as a major international player capable of exerting its influence far from its borders, and forced the USA to reckon with Moscow’s interests. But there was also recognition in Moscow that pressing ahead any further with the military operation would produce diminishing returns. Russian officials have said it is unrealistic to try to restore Assad’s control over all of Syria and the time had come to negotiate a peace. Putin said at a Kremlin meeting that “with the participation of the Russian military, the Syrian armed forces and Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects”.
Millions of people have been slaughtered, severely wounded, driven out of their nations by these colonialist powers. Fake threat perceptions of anti-Islamic nations, following the Sept 11 hoax, have harmed the humanity.
The apparent beginning of a Russian pullout of some forces from Syria should not be mistaken for the end of the Syrian civil war — or for a moral foreign policy. What it suggests, rather, is that Russia has achieved its military goals there and is now content to let both the political and military processes proceed with less direct Russian intervention. The main military mission of Russia in Syria appears to be over.
Russia’s primary goals in Syria were to secure its hold on the bases at Latakia and Tartus, which requires a friendly government in Damascus, and to attack Sunni rebels, whether ISIS, al Qaeda, or simply anti-Assad. Another goal was to allow the Russians to test and show off new generation military equipment and tactics, including sustained bombing and the MiG-31M aircraft. (Russia seeks international orders for its new terror equipment). Another was to provide diplomatic achievements including opening conversations — and discussing arms sales — with American allies/clients Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and deepening the information exchange with Israel.
Russian leaders led by Putin simply cannot forget the past red army experience in Afghanistan which their military occupied for years facing tough challenge from Sunni fighters, supported by USA and NATO. This ill-feeling towards Sunnis have promoted Russian military to target Sunnis in Syria. That suits President Assad who wants to finish off Sunnis in the country. Russia provided the airpower that allowed Syrian troops to retake territory essential to security in the northwestern part of the country, and bombed Sunni areas regardless of rebel or jihadist allegiance. There is no longer an existential threat to a pro-Russian regime in Damascus. Having succeeded, Putin said they’re leaving. But Russian air defense systems and advisors will remain to ensure the security of Russian-supported assets and goals
Russia has shown the road map to all colonial powers to emulate it and follow suit. Accordingly, Imperialist-colonialist NATO and its leader USA, neocolonialists Israel and India must respect the path shown by the Kremlin to quit occupations and let the nations under their occupation to gain sovereignty.
However, questions remained about the practical implications of Putin’s announcement. It was not clear if Russian air strikes would stop. Russia will retain the capability to launch them, from the base in Latakia province.
Peace and democracy are not mere slogans, for, sustained efforts are necessary to achieve these objectives.