What does Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria signify?

Foreign Policy reports: Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that until the past week, he had been in touch with officials close to the Assad regime in Damascus who expressed “a constant drumbeat of confidence that they’re going to take back every inch of Syrian soil, and Russia is their partner.” But those communications abruptly fell off earlier this month. “No one was answering the phones in Damascus. That leads me to believe they were thrown for a loop.”

Landis said that Putin’s planned withdrawal from Syria means he’s not going to back Assad “all the way.” But he said the move was also likely aimed at Washington, which has frustrated Moscow by refusing to work with Putin to fight the Islamic State. “This is a shot across America’s bow as well,” Landis said, “with Russia saying, ‘We’ll leave, and you’ll be stuck holding the bag in Syria.’”

The withdrawal announcement, reported by Russian state media, appears to have caught the White House off guard. A senior administration official said Monday that they had seen reports of the Russian move and that “we expect to learn more about this in the coming hours.” A spokesman for the Defense Department declined to comment. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Russia will continue air strikes in Syria despite the withdrawal of most of its forces, a senior official has said.

Deputy Defence Minister Nikolay Pankov said it was too early to speak of defeating terrorism, after a campaign that has bolstered Syria’s government.

Russian defence ministry video showed the first group of aircraft taking off from Hmeimim air base in Syria on Tuesday morning and in flight.

Hours later, Russian TV showed planes arriving in the southern Russian city of Voronezh, where they were greeted on the tarmac by priests and crowds waving balloons.

Su-24 tactical bombers, Su-25 attack fighters, Su-34 strike fighters and helicopters were returning home, the TV said. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament has estimated that about 1,000 Russian military personnel will remain in Syria at Russia’s two bases.

The head of the parliamentary defense committee, Viktor Ozerov, said Tuesday that he estimated about 1,000 Russian military personnel would remain in Syria at the two bases. That’s according to the Interfax news agency.

Ozerov says Russia would need a minimum of two battalions, a total of 800 troops, to protect the two bases. He says it will continue to conduct air reconnaissance, requiring some of the plane crews to remain, and the military specialists advising the Syrian army also would stay.

The estimate follows President Vladimir Putin’s announcement Monday that some of the Russian aircraft and troops would be withdrawn. Russia has not revealed how many soldiers it has deployed to Syria, where it maintains a naval facility as well as an air base, but U.S. estimates of the number of Russian military personnel varies from 3,000 to 6,000.

Britain’s foreign minister says he is skeptical about Russia’s announced military withdrawal from Syria.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told lawmakers in the House of Commons that Russia had made past pledges to pull its troops out of Ukraine, “which later turned out to be merely routine rotation of forces.”

He says that “because Russia is completely un-transparent about its motives and its plans, we can only speculate.”

Hammond says a genuine de-escalation by Russia “would be welcome,” and urges Moscow to use its influence on President Bashar Assad’s government to seriously engage with the opposition.

Hammond said that “Russia has unique influence to help make these negotiations succeed and we sincerely hope that they will use it.” [Continue reading…]

Laura Rozen spoke to Paul Saunders, a Russia expert at the Center for the National Interest, who said: “It is striking, and many in … and out of the region will take note of the fact that President Putin said that withdrawal is going to take place because the Russian forces have achieved their objective,” Saunders told Al-Monitor March 14. “Because when they went in, it was framed very much in terms of strikes on [IS]. That mission is not really completed.”

“What has actually been accomplished is this rather tentative temporary cessation of hostilities leading to some kind of successful peace process between Assad and the forces of the opposition,” Saunders said.

Putin “is trying to send a message to both sides,” Saunders said. “Certainly for the Assad regime side, it makes very clear to them that they better actually negotiate seriously.”

But the announced partial withdrawal “does not mean Russia is just walking away,” Saunders added. “The pace of the withdrawal … also provides leverage. It can be slowed, it can be accelerated. Moscow has the continuing leverage that it needs.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The announcement on Monday surprised people on all sides of the conflict. State Department officials, Syrian antigovernment activists, Mr. Assad’s supporters and Syrian opposition negotiators all reacted with disbelief, not sure whether to lament, celebrate or laugh.

In Idlib Province, held by a combination of insurgents that range from the Nusra Front to American-backed rebels, people fired guns in the air.

“People are distributing sweets and calling ‘God is great’ from the mosques,” said a fighter who gave his name as Ahmed. “There’s optimism, but we don’t know what’s hidden.”

Farther south, in Homs, an antigovernment activist, Firas — who, like Ahmed, asked that only his first name be used for safety reasons — was worried. “The Russians were sponsoring the cease-fire,” he said. “Now the regime will bomb again and the Russians will leave us for the Iranians, a disaster.”

Even in Geneva, the opposition spokesman, Salem al-Muslet, reflected that ambivalence, resenting Russia’s support for Mr. Assad but seeing Mr. Putin as the only figure who could force Mr. Assad to negotiate in earnest.

“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,” he said at first. “Just go.” Later, he added, “If it’s true, this is a good sign and a good start to a political solution.” [Continue reading…]

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