A group of Russian military planes left their base in Syria on Tuesday, Russia’s defense ministry said, marking the first step in the country's withdrawal of most of its forces in Syria (AFP). Remaining Russian forces will still have advanced air defense systems to protect them, the Kremlin’s chief of staff said (TASS). Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the sudden withdrawal late Monday as peace talks resumed in Geneva and Syria passed the five-year anniversary of the start of its protracted civil war. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura welcomed Moscow’s decision (VOA), saying he hoped the development would have a positive impact on the negotiations.
“Mr. Putin almost certainly never intended this to be a long military campaign. He has gotten what he wanted, sees no great advantage in making Russia a full party to Syria’s civil war, and may have heard from pollsters and focus groups that the intervention is losing support at home. All in all, then, a smart move. Still, there are many ways this ‘withdrawal’ can play out, and not all of them will be good for Mr. Putin. So let’s admire his caginess but keep in mind that the story is far from over,” writes CFR’s Stephen Sestanovich for the Wall Street Journal.
“Russia has shown time and again that it has very limited influence over Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has proven itself to be reckless, often escalating the fighting even at moments when it was strategically unwise. If Moscow wants to freeze the status quo in Syria, it has to convince Assad to finally negotiate in good faith and not break the ceasefire outright. Putin thus has to do more than just tell Assad to finally try for peace: He has to force him. Russia, by removing some significant chunk of its military force in Syria, makes Assad weaker, and thus makes negotiation more attractive,” writes Max Fisher in Vox.
“Russia entered Syria with one overriding objective: Preserve the Assad regime. To avoid another Afghanistan-style quagmire, Russia relies on fighters from its Shi’ite allies, including Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. By picking a clear and achievable goal and then ensuring that Moscow and its allies all rowed in one direction, Putin enacted a textbook proxy strategy. Washington’s Syrian policy, meanwhile, remains a hopeless muddle,” writes Josh Cohen for Reuters.
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