Russia begins withdrawal of 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, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as UN-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war. Putin said at the Kremlin meeting he was ordering the withdrawal from March 14 of the main part of “our military contingent” from Arab Syria. Putin made his surprise announcement at a meeting with his defence and foreign ministers.
As a result, Russian forces are already leaving Syria, surprising USA, President Assad, the opposition and the entire world because no one knew for sure how many years the Russian forces would stay in Syria. Russia said its first jets have left Syria and are on their way back to Russia. Speculation was that Russia would keep is forces in Syria as USA is doing the same in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq.
Vladimir Putin said he instructed his armed forces to start pulling out of Syria, over five months after he ordered the launch of a military operation that shored up his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin said at a Kremlin meeting with his defence and foreign ministers that 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.
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 Bashar al-Assad’s favor, rescuing his regime from the brink of collapse. Putin’s announcement appeared timed to coincide with peace talks in Geneva that have been dominated by a disagreement over Assad’s fate.
Putin said the 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.
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 half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis. 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.
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, United Nations 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.
US President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have 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 United States 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Russia has 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.
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 United States 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 the Kremlin meeting, “With the participation of the Russian military … the Syrian armed forces and patriotic 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,” Putin said.
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.” But the Russian leader signaled Moscow would keep a military presence: he did not give a deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said Russian forces would stay on 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.
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.
Russia has shown the road map to all colonial powers to follow suit and emulate. NATO and its leader USA, Israel and India must respect the path shown by the Kremlin to quit occupations and let the nations under their occupation to gain sovereignty.
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.
Peace and democracy are not mere slogans, for, sustained efforts are necessary to achieve these objectives.