5 min read  | Damascus, Hasakah, Interviews, Politics

In Moscow’s withdrawal, some opposition leaders see ‘a political message that carries a Russian warning’


March 15, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of “most” of his country’s forces from Syria on Monday.

Moscow’s objectives are “generally fulfilled” five and a half months after intervening on behalf of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the official TASS agency quoted Putin as saying in a meeting on Monday with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“The efficient work of our military has created conditions for the start of a peace process,” Putin said.

Russian planes began to leave Syria on Tuesday, while Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov stated that remaining forces would “continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities.” The size and composition of the remaining Russian forces were not immediately clear.

The surprising move by Moscow comes as the ongoing cessation of hostilities in Syria quiets some fronts despite repeated reports of violations by multiple warring parties. The withdrawal also coincides with the resumption of United Nations-brokered peace talks between the warring parties in Geneva as the Syrian war enters its sixth year.

One day after Russia’s announcement, Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou, Noura Hourani and Osama Abu Zeid checked in for reaction from local opposition leaders on the ground.

Hussam Abu Saad, a member of the FSA Southern Front’s General Command

Q: How do rebels around you view Russia’s decision? Do they consider it a victory?

Russia’s decision to withdraw came as a surprise, just like its decision to intervene. I’ll say that its withdrawal is a victory surrounded by uncertainty, and surrounded by a lack of faith that they will implement, fully, the troop withdrawal declarations.

It could be that the statements carry multiple meanings, and are intended to return the regime to a state of obedience to the Russians after [Syrian Foreign Minister] al-Muallem’s provocative statements deviated from the political path that Russia imposed on it.

[Ed.: Waleed al-Muallem said at a Saturday press conference in Damascus that “we will not engage in dialogue with anyone who talks about the presidency. Bashar al-Assad is a red line, and belongs to the Syrian people.”]

All told, this is the positive side that rebels see in the Russians’ withdrawal, which will help ensure the continuation of the Geneva talks.

Q: What’s the benefit of the Russian withdrawal during a truce that prevents rebels from launching new battles to regain what they lost during Moscow’s intervention?

It’s a political message that carries a Russian warning of the end of military aid, which will push the regime to accept the political course whether they like it or not.

Q: How do you view the timing of Russia’s decision, coinciding with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva?

The withdrawal’s timing came after several indications. You’ve got the Russian-American agreement that pushes towards a political solution to the crisis, as well as the Russian-Turkish tension on the northern Syrian border. That tension nearly caused the countries to go to war, which would have cost Russia more than sacrificing Assad.

[Ed.: Tensions between Russia and Turkey escalated last November after the latter shot down a Russian bomber for violating its airspace.]

The withdrawal announcement also came after the economic burdens Russia had to endure following the fall in oil prices, in addition to the costs of the military campaign itself.

All of these factors pushed Russia to search for a political exit strategy that puts an end to its drowning in the Syrian War.

Rustam Rustam, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, an FSA faction in northern Latakia

Q: How do rebels around you view Russia’s decision to withdraw? Do they consider it a victory?

Yes, it is a large victory for the rebels because we have been able to remain steadfast for [nearly] six months in the face of the greatest nation in the world, under barbaric bombardment with all types of weaponry.

Q: What’s the benefit of the Russian withdrawal during a truce that prevents rebels from launching new battles to regain what they lost during the Russian intervention?

There has been no ceasefire on the coastal front [in northern Latakia]. It has been violated since the first day from the ground and air. The regime tried to exploit the ceasefire to gain ground but we have withstood it.

Russia’s withdrawal won’t change anything. If the regime continues its ground campaign and barrel bombings, we’ll resist. We won’t stand with our hands tied.

I believe the coastal front is one of the most sensitive fronts for the regime as well as for the Russians to secure their military bases. I expect bombardment and military ground operations to continue.

Q: How do you view the timing of Russia’s decision, coinciding with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva?

I believe that Russia is trying to find the right ground to push for a peaceful solution because it has realized that a military solution is not feasible, especially after placing all its military might behind the regime and achieving little progress on the ground.

That is in addition to the widespread criticisms of Russia for targeting the opposition and the Free Syrian Army rather than the Islamic State and Jabhat a-Nusra.

Abdullah a-Shami, member of the Political Body in East Ghouta, comprising elected civilian representatives who represent residents in political processes, such as ceasefire negotiations.

Q: How do you view Russia’s decision to withdraw a large portion of its forces from Syria?

Russia is not able to invest more than it already has to stabilize the [Bashar] al-Assad regime. It appears that the decision to withdraw is to increase pressure for a political solution, which would benefit Assad the most at this moment.

Q: The standing ceasefire prevents the rebels from launching battles to retake territory they lost during Russian intervention. What is the utility of Russia’s withdrawal under these circumstances?

Certainly the rebels will benefit from Russia’s withdrawal, because their battle with the regime has not ended. Their fight is both military and political, as well as a revolutionary one.

The withdrawal is in the revolution’s interest and will weaken the regime. Regardless, we must proceed carefully until the steps of the Russia’s decision are clarified further.

Q: How do you view the timing of Russia’s decision, coinciding with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva?

Russia’s withdrawal could be part of a regional understanding reached before the Geneva conference in the interest of some agreed-upon objective. 

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