Russia’s ‘surprise & unexpected’ Syrian withdrawal welcomed as signal of ‘true peace process’
… from Russia Today, Moscow
[ Editor’s Note: Beware the Ides of March! World reaction to Putin’s surprise move on the eve of the new Geneva talks has generally been seen as a move to boost the talks and build confidence in the strength of the ceasefire.
Only the New York Times, with its Israeli assets there, has spun it as evidence of a rift between Moscow and Damascus, where Putin was putting pressure on Assad to make concessions during the talks to maintain momentum.
This is the kind of task an Intel agency would use its key press assets for, seeding the news that Russia, unsaid, wants Assad to consider stepping down to remove any impediment to some of the remaining opposition. But this would surprise me, because they are primarily the sponsor-backed terrorist groups, and where rewarding them would just have them move on to their next set of demands.
Russia has consistently said the Syrians should negotiate when and how they want to transition into elections, but really, getting the new constitution process going is the key next step to building support from the opposition as to what greater share they will have over ruling themselves locally.
There is no word from the Turks yet, and no word about them, as in what should be done if they continue shelling Syrian territory and keep their troops on the Syrian side. But this puts them in a tougher position to maintain doing this. I sent a NEO piece in last night covering all of these points, wanting to get something date-stamped as to what I thought was going to happen and why.
Yesterday’s initial VT article, written after the first reports, has done well on VT and has one of the top comment sections for a 2016 article. The readers get it, both as to why Putin made the more, and also what the risks are. It is a compliment to VT to see we have savvy readers when it comes to major geopolitical moves like this. My congrats to all.
The next thing to watch is the momentum of the attacks on the remaining al-Nusra and ISIL main positions. Will Russia use its remaining planes to provide full air support to keep the momentum of those attacks going? And last, will we see the terrorist supporters taking advantage of this Russian move to aggressively move terror reinforcements into those areas to maintain their hold on them during the talks? … Jim W. Dean ]
– First published … March 15, 2016 –
Global political leaders have welcomed the Russian military pullout from Syria, and while many have called the Kremlin’s decision “unexpected,” it is seen as clearing the way for dialogue while a truce in the five-year-old war is negotiated in Geneva.
Acknowledging that five months of military campaigns have mostly succeeded in their primary objective of eliminating the immediate wider threat from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), President Vladimir Putin has ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Syria.
Russia has placed its strategic emphasis on establishing a diplomatic effort, with Putin instructing the Foreign Ministry to intensify Moscow’s participation in organizing the peace process to resolve the Syrian crisis, which is about to enter its sixth year.
After announcing partial Russian withdrawal, President Putin, explained to his American counterpart Barack Obama in a phone conversation that the decision will “certainly serve as a good signal to all conflicting sides and create conditions for the start of a true peace process,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The timing of the Russian decision is crucial as vital negotiations to avert further bloodshed in Syria resumed on Monday in Geneva. The last round of negotiations collapsed in January because the opposition block refused to debate their differences as Russian air raids intensified near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
The UN Mediator of the Syrian peace talks said the Russian pullback would give impetus to the process.
“The announcement by President Putin on the very day of the beginning of this round of Intra-Syrian Talks in Geneva is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations in Geneva aimed at achieving a political solution of the Syrian conflict and a peaceful political transition in the country,” Staffan de Mistura said in a statement on Tuesday.
Obama welcomed the “much-needed reduction in violence” since the cease-fire took effect late last month, the White House said in a statement about Monday’s phone call. “The president underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria,” the White House added.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also welcomed Moscow’s announcement saying it will put additional pressure on parties in Geneva to negotiate a peaceful transition to end the Syrian turmoil.
“This will increase the pressure on the al-Assad regime to finally and seriously negotiate a peaceful political transition in Geneva,” Steinmeier said in a statement.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry were also positive about developments.
“The fact that a semi-ceasefire has been holding in Syria is welcome news, it’s something that we’ve been asking for at least two-and-a-half, three years,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at a meeting with his Australian couterpart Julie Bishop in Canberra.
“The fact that Russia announced that it’s withdrawing part of its forces indicates that they don’t see an imminent need for resort to force in maintaining the ceasefire,” he added. “That in and of itself should be a positive sign. Now we have to wait and see.”
While Russia plans to maintain a military presence at its naval base in Tartous and the Khmeymim airbase, Moscow’s decision to reduce its military involvement in Syria has already been welcomed by the Syrian opposition currently negotiating in Geneva.
“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the rebel High Negotiations Committee. “If this is a serious step it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that.”
What is also important is that the move has been well received by all members of the UN Security Council, who have been working tirelessly on the diplomatic front to secure peace in Syria.
“We have also taken very good note of the decision by the Russians to start withdrawing part of these forces,” the Security Council’s rotating president, Angola’s Ambassador Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins, told reporters. “When we see forces withdrawing, it means war is taking a different step. So that’s good.”
However, despite the careful timing of Putin’s announcement that is clearly aimed at cementing the fragile ceasefire in Syria, the Kremlin’s decision has been called “a surprise move,” by the New York Times, which hypothesizes that the Russian decision was conditioned by the rift between Moscow and Damascus.
“There have been growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government over the Geneva talks, which Moscow has pressed hard for along with Washington,” NYT wrote.
In reality the Russian initiative to withdraw received full support from the Syrian government before the announcement was made.
“The president of Syria noted the professionalism, courage and heroism of the Russian service personnel who took part in the military operations, and expressed his profound gratitude to Russia for providing such substantial help in fighting terrorism and providing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population,”the Kremlin said commenting on the phone call between Putin and Assad.
The Wall Street Journal has dubbed Moscow’s withdrawal an “unexpected announcement.” “US officials said any withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria would come as a complete surprise and that the US government hadn’t expected Moscow to announce such a move,” WSJ said.
Stratfor, a global intelligence think tank, has also used the term “unexpected withdrawal,” to describe Putin’s decision. At the same time, their report acknowledged that Moscow has achieved its stated agenda.
“With their actions in Syria thus far, the Russians have showcased their improved combat capabilities and some new, previously unused weapons… Russia has also largely achieved its goal of weakening Islamic State…” the Stratforreport reads. “All in all, Islamic State may not be entirely defeated, but its forces in Syria and Iraq are much weaker than they were five months ago.”