Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that he would be withdrawing “the main part” of his forces from Syria. Putin instructed his diplomats to push for peace in UN-mediated talks about the war in Syria that has been ravaging the country for nearly five years.
His announcement, made on the same day UN talks in Geneva resumed, came as a shock to all parties.
Is Putin attempting to press Assad into a political settlement? Some Western diplomats suspect as much. According to Russian news agency Sputnik, pullback efforts will begin Tuesday.
“It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” said one European diplomat. “However, I say potentially because we’ve seen before with Russia that what’s promised isn’t always what happens.”
According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin telephoned both President Bashar al-Assad and President Barak Obama on Monday to inform them of his decision. Putin and Assad did not discuss the Syrian president’s future, however, which is the biggest obstacle to forming a peace agreement.
There seems to be no rift between Syria and Moscow. In fact, Assad allegedly agreed on the “reduction” of troops.
“The whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time”, reads a statement released by the Syrian presidency. Moscow also promised to continue supporting Syria in “confronting terrorism.”
Obama and Putin “discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities with the goal of advancing the political negotiations on resolution of the conflict. President Obama welcomed the much-needed reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation, but stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process,” reads a statement released by the White House.
Putin’s intervention in the Syrian war last September helped turn the tide against rebel fighters. “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” said Putin. “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” With the help of Russia’s military, Syrian forces “have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism,” he added.
“I don’t understand the Russian announcement, it’s a surprise, like the way they entered the war,” said a spokesman for the First Coastal Division (a Free Syria Army group). “God protect us.”
“Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind, but the point is he has no right to be in our country in the first place. Just go,” said opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat.
The Geneva talks resume amidst a “cessation of hostilities” last month sponsored by Moscow and Washington and agreed to by Assad’s government and several of his foes. The fragile truth is a step in the right direction, but excludes the powerful Nusra Front and Islamic State groups.
Syrian opposition agrees the Geneva talks must focus on establishing a transitional governing body with complete executive power and that President Assad must step down immediately.