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 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.
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.
Comments also came from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
“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 being 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 Stratfor report 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.”