Cautious Optimism as Putin Announces Military Draw-Down in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (Photo: The Kremlin)

Cautious Optimism as Putin Announces Military Draw-Down in Syria

Experts say timing 'not a coincidence,' as Syrian peace talks began in Geneva on Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced that he would be withdrawing the majority of his country's troops out of Syria beginning on Tuesday.

A Kremlin statement said that Putin confirmed the withdrawal personally over the phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia's military intervention began its bombing campaign on September 30, 2015, following a formal request by the Syrian government.

According to the statement, Putin and Assad agreed that the Russian bombing campaign "have brought about a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria, throwing their infrastructure into disarray and causing them substantial damage."

They also agreed that the operations "made it possible to put in place conditions for starting a peace process under UN aegis."

Putin said that Russia's military has "fulfilled their main mission in Syria."

"With the participation of the Russian military ... the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects," he added.

Russian troops will reportedly remain in Syria at Russian bases in Tartous as well as the Hmeymim airbase in the Latakia province, from which most of Russia's strikes had been launched. Putin did not give a deadline for the withdrawal completion.

Putin defied a number of countries, including the United States, when it began the strikes in accordance with the Assad regime, which the U.S. opposes.

"We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face," Putin said at the time.

The announcement was made after a fresh round of Syrian peace talks resumed in Geneva on Monday.

Following the news, observers expressed cautious optimism that the draw-down might increase the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Julien Barnes Dacey, senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Middle East Eye that the timing was "not a coincidence."

"It seems that this is signalling both to Assad and other parties that the Russians are not going to facilitate an absolute Assad victory--and that the political process needs to be taken seriously now and that Russian influence will be used in that direction."

Vox foreign editor Max Fisher wrote online: "Obviously we'll wait to see if Russia follows through on withdrawal from Syria, but possibly quite a vindication for diplomacy if so."

And Shaun Walker, Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, agreed, stating: "Russia can redeploy any time but my sense is withdrawal real. Goal of getting voice at the table achieved; get out before mission creep."

According to international human rights group Amnesty International, Russia's bombing campaign was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Syrian civilians.

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