Russia launches military operations in Syria
The sidelines of the 2015 U.N. General Assembly in New York witnessed meetings held between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the fate of Syria. The main subject was Russia’s military intervention in Syria, yet no particular conclusion was reached. Putin began his air campaign in Syria on September 30th. Homs, then held by opposition forces, was the first city attacked by Russian warplanes.
Russia continuously claimed to target Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) targets. However, facts on the ground showed only 10% of Russia’s bombings actually hit Daesh positions, while the remaining 90% were focused on Free Syrian Army positions and other groups.
Before Russia launched its attacks the Syrian regime was in a dire status and experts believed Assad would fall in a matter of months. However, Russian airstrikes and the Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Shiite militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground were able to salvage Assad’s rule, allowing his troops to make significant gains against opposition rebels.
Russia and the United States proposed a plan for a “cessation of hostilities” establishing a ceasefire from February 27th. Up to this point Russia’s airstrikes had continued for five months.
Airstrikes and Casualties
The Russian Defense Ministry reported over 9,000 sorties were carried out in the span of five months, killing 2,000 militants. Human Rights Watch in Syria said 1,700 civilians were also killed by Russia’s military operations.
Russia Pulling Out
At 8 pm of March 14th, prior to the Geneva negotiations, Putin held a session with his Foreign and Defense ministers announcing Russian forces’ intention to withdraw from Syria. Russia’s military intervention had widely achieved its goals and Moscow’s diplomatic role in negotiations to end the war in Syria will increase, he added. These forces began pulling out of Syria on Saturday, March 15th.
Putin informed Bashar Assad over the phone of Moscow’s decision, adding Russia will continue supporting the Syrian government. The Hamimim airbase and Tartus naval base will continue their activities. The Russian Ambassador to the U.N. said these measures will support the political solution. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this decision has not been raised with Western officials and is an expertise conclusion. Lavrov said these measures are aimed at safeguarding the Syrian people’s interests and we will continue to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorists in Syria. The Russian Parliament Defense Committee said Moscow will remain committed to providing weapons, military technology and training Syrian experts.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Russia pulling out its forces shows they see no immediate need to resort to the military option in order to maintain a ceasefire.
Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said there will not be any changes made to the general cooperation between Russia, Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran. Anyhow, whenever needed they will once again take action in their very important struggle against terrorism, he added.
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani met with Faisal Meqdad, deputy foreign minister of Syria on Tuesday, March 15th, yet made no reference to Russia’s decision.
Royoran, a political expert in Iran: “First of all, Russia has not recalled all of its forces. A portion of their forces have been recalled and they have taken back a number of their planes, while maintaining their advanced fighter jets in Syria. They have preserved their two bases in Hamimim and Tartous. The second issue is that Russia has announced these measures are to facilitate talks. If talks were actually held, the better, and the political solution will advance. If the opponents violate the ceasefire, Russia will return.”
Senior Syrian opposition figure George Sabra: Russian forces leaving Syria should have a positive reflection on the negotiations in Geneva.
Ahmed al-Asrawi, member of the Syrian High Negotiating Committee: Russian forces departing Syria will support resolving the Syrian political crisis.
The Syrian opposition in Geneva said Russia’s retreat from Syria will increase pressures on the Assad regime and lead to change. The opposition also called for investigations on the ground to confirm Russia’s withdrawal. While welcoming this new development the Syrian opposition added if such measures are serious they will act positively for the negotiations.
Ans Abde, President of the National Revolution Forces and Syrian opposition said, “This is the right move during negotiations over political transition, showing there are rifts between Russia and Bashar Assad. Moreover, no joint statement has been presented on the withdrawal of Russian forces.”
Manzar Makhous, a member of the Syrian High Negotiating Committee said this withdrawal is part of the main Russia forces in Syria and completely changes the equation in this country. This has been described as a step accelerating the overthrow of Assad’s dynasty.
Salem Mosalat, spokesman of the Syrian High Negotiating Committee emphasized, “We would like to see Russia be our friend in Syria,” adding, “Such a measure will act positively in the Geneva negotiations to resolve the Syria crisis.” He wished this decision would become practical as soon as possible.
Leader of the Freedom Army stationed in Hama Province reported this new development has raised the spirits of his group, adding they are certain the Assad regime cannot remain intact without foreign support.
U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Stefan de Mistura explained the Russian decision based on pulling out the bulk of its forces from Syria is an important development in this day and age that will have a positive impact on the negotiations.
Only a few moments after Putin’s remarks were aired by Russian TV, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said we have to wait and see what is Russia’s exact intention, without expressing any other perspectives.
It is still too early to judge Putin’s objective, why such a decision was made and will it be implemented or not, said another U.S. official.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this maybe the best opportunity to end the 5-year-long Syria civil war, adding his intention to visit Russia and meet Putin for this very purpose.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said if the Russians truly pull out their forces from Syria, then it will be good news and a vital move in the peace process. However, there is still not enough information about how this will be carried out, as the Russians had also talked about pulling out troops involved in Ukraine. However, the world only witnessed the transfer of Russia’s forces, he added
The state Syria news agency cited Bashar Assad saying the Russian military will never completely evacuate Syria. Russia will adjust the number of forces on the ground according to the scene, and the continued trend of the cessation of hostilities. Cooperation between Russia and Syrian forces guaranteed victories against terrorism and restored security to this country.
The Syrian presidency issued a statement saying: What is being reported by the media and social media about rifts between Russia and Syria following Moscow’s decision to pull out its forces are baseless. Simultaneously, Interfax quoted the chair of the Russian Senate Defense Committee writing around 800 personnel, including military advisors, will remain in Syria, and the S-400 missile defense system that Russia transferred to Syria following Turkey downing one of its jets will remain intact.
1. Putin’s decision came out of the blue, and one can sense the sudden nature in the reactions seen from the U.S., Iran and Bashar Assad himself.
2. Putin’s telephone call with Obama following the announcement of pulling troops out of Syria shows this measure was not coordinated with Washington. Moscow also explained no discussions were held in this regard with any Western country.
3. The reasons behind Putin’s decision:
- The country’s economic situation and Moscow having a limited military budget, making it unable to continue a bombing campaign similar to the U.S.
- Advances made by the Syrian regime and Iran-backed forces under Russian air cover were very dismal against Syrian opposition forces. Russia had gone to great lengths in the five months of non-stop airstrikes. Therefore, Moscow realized there was no end sight, and so it used the opportunity in the ceasefire and under the excuse of negotiations to portray itself as an advocate of a political solution, and thus pull out of the Syria quagmire.
4. On the other hand, in negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime, Bashar Assad raised the thought of cancelling any transitional period, and effectively placed the Geneva negotiations before an impasse. As a result de Mistura announced if the negotiations fail the issue will be referred to the U.N. and “Plan B” would be implemented. On the other hand, the five major industrial countries warned Bashar Assad that Putin sought to caution him by pulling out of Syria and place pressure on Assad to continue the negotiations.
5. The Iranian regime is attempting to portray this decision by Russia as a temporary and returnable development, knowing this move by Moscow will have major consequences on the ground against its interests.
6. It doesn’t appear Russia has the intention to return to the clashes following Putin’s decision. Furthermore, Russian Senate Defense Committee chair said only 800 Russians will remain in Syria.
7. Prior to the announcement of Russian forces pulling out, the Syrian regime’s position regarding the Geneva negotiations was very aggressive, as if it has already failed before ever beginning. However, Assad said he would support a political solution in Syria following Moscow’s announcement of pulling out its troops.
8. This move by Russia has led to a more unified Syrian opposition force. This very subject has significantly terrified the Syrian regime. The Syrian opposition widely welcomed this announcement by Russia.