Syrians celebrate 'victory' over the Russian Goliath

Syrians celebrate 'victory' over the Russian Goliath
Many Syrians see Russia's withdrawal from the country as a victory for the anti-regime opposition and proof of the power of street protests, which re-emerged after a five-year break.
6 min read
15 March, 2016
Syria's opposition have fought a grueling war against the regime and Russia [AFP]

While analysts decipher what is behind Russia's partial withdrawal from Syria, the Syrian people are celebrating.

Many are hoping that the pull-out means bombings by Russian war planes will end or be greatly reduced, allowing peaceful protests to continue as they have done over the past two weeks.

They have come at a crucial time as world powers and rival Syrian parties meet in Geneva for talks which will decide Syria's future.

"They thought we had died and surrendered," said Dani Qappani, a media activist based in Moadamiyeh in the Damascus suburbs.

"They thought that they exhausted us by massacres, bombings and conspiracies, but we know what we want and we'll get it even if our death is the result, because our children will live in a free place with dignity."

Street pressure

Pressure from street protests could have influenced Putin in pulling out his forces. Activists have been involved in a good bit of myth-busting, showing the world that Moscow and Damascus' claims that there is no moderate opposition inside Syria's rebel territories is in fact bogus.

They have also shown steely determination that they will not accept President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power as part of a peace deal.

Russia might agree to this, so long as it retains its interests in the country after the war - notably Tartous naval base and Latakia airport, where a thousand Russian military personnel are set to remain.

10 key dates in Syria's war

2011: Revolt and repression 

- March 15: Unprecedented protests inspired by the Arab Spring erupt, demanding reform after 40 years of iron-fist rule by President Bashar al-Assad's family.
- Security forces crack down on protesters in Damascus and Daraa, known as "the cradle of the uprising", where 100 people are reportedly killed on March 23. 
- The regime claims it is cracking down on "an armed rebellion" by radical Islamists, while Britain, France and the United States denounce the repression.
- Protests spread, with demonstrators calling for Assad's ousting.

2012: All-out war
- July 17: Moderate rebels from the Free Syrian Army declare that the battle for Damascus has begun, but the government holds its ground.
- July 19: Rebels launch an offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, which has since been divided between rebel-held neighbourhoods in the east and regime-held districts in the west.

2013: Chemical attacks 
- August 21: Hundreds of people are killed in chemical weapons attacks targeting rebel bastions near Damascus. The West accuses Assad's regime.
- In September, the United States and Russia agree on a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, narrowly heading off US strikes.

2014: Rise of the extremists
- January 14: The Islamic State group, which emerged in Syria in 2013, seizes Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall out of regime control.
- June 29: IS declares the establishment of an Islamic "caliphate". It later claims numerous murders, including of Western hostages.
- September 23: The US and Arab allies launch airstrikes on IS in Syria.

2014: The fall of Homs 
- May 9: Syrian troops recapture the Old City of Homs, after a two-year siege and near-daily bombardment. Rebels withdraw.

2015: Kobane liberated 
- January 26: Kurdish forces backed by US-led airstrikes drive IS out of the flashpoint town of Kobane on the Turkish border, after months of fierce fighting.

2015: Al-Nusra spreads 
- March 28: Syria's al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, backed by rebel allies, seizes most of the northwestern city of Idlib, the second provincial capital after Raqqa to fall out of government hands. 
- In May, Assad says that such set-backs do not mean the conflict is lost, but in July he acknowledges the shrinking ranks of his army.

2015: Russia intervenes 
- September 30: Russia launches airstrikes on Syria, saying it is targeting "terrorists" including IS, but faces accusations of hitting non-extremist rebels and civilians as it seeks to bolster Assad.

2016: Ceasefire 
- February 27: An unprecedented "cessation of hostilities" comes into force. It applies to combat zones between Russian-backed regime forces and non-extremist rebels, but does not apply to the more than half of the country's territory that is controlled by extremist groups.

However, claims by Putin that Russia achieved what they set out to do - to erredicate "terrorists" - is clearly little more than bluff and propaganda, of the kind that Syrians have grown accustomed to.

Moscow appears to be more concerned with avoiding being bogged down in another Afghanistan, they say.

"Of course it is. When a superpower like Russia tries to find excuses for its withdrawal - even after getting its interests - then it became clearer that the revolution is for the right cause and the right cause always triumphs," said Qappani.

Putin clearly underestimated the tenacity and resilience of the Syrian opposition and believed that First World bombs could snuff it the rebellion out.

"Demonstrations are not the entire [reason for the withdrawal] but it gave our negotiationing committee [in Geneva] strength, while on the other hand it showed the ugly face of Russia and Assad to the world."

The revolution continues

Ibrahim Jawdat, a journalist from Aleppo who travels between Syria and Turkey, said that many Syrians believe that the revolution and protest movements have forced the Russians out.

"The people believe that the recent demonstrations have changed world opinion. People are happy, they feel they have achieved something," he said.

"Demonstrations made people feel they can do something. It's a peaceful movement and people didn't wait for long after the ceasefire was announced. The very next day they went on the streets and made it clear that the priority was the fall of the regime."

Supporters of the regime are clearly worried by Russia's move, and angry with Moscow's "betrayal".

Until Monday's announcement, Putin was treated with respect and even veneration by the regime's most extreme supporters. Now there are rumours that Hizballah could also pull the bulk of its forces from Syria, which would leave Damascus hopelessly outflanked.

"On the regime side, people are a little worried… some of them have even started cursing the Russians and calling them traitors."

Returning from the quagmire

Although Syria's state news have said that the Russian pull-out was agreed between Assad and Putin beforehand, few believe these claims.

What most Syrians fear is that the Kremlin's decision in based on an behind-the-scenes agreement in Geneva to keep Assad in power for the interim period, or agree to a de-facto seperation of the country.

Even the grey lines surrounding Russia's withdrawal will keep Syrians on edge.

"Putin's statement was very clear that he has ordered a withdrawal, but not from Tartous naval base or Latakia airbase. I think that even the aircraft will remain and that the bombings will continue," said the Syrian photographer.

Lives lost

The regime's claim that its miliary has enough power and weapons to carry out military operations without Moscow's support is also likely to be false, but the remaining Russian aircraft will provide vital support for troops and militia.

"It is possible, but my opinion is one of the [important]things that Russia did is train Syrian pilots in the new Su-30 and they are already with the regime now," he said.

But ultimately, Jawdat believes that Russia's decision is based on cost analysis, and that propping up Assad isn't worth the price to pay, particularly as Moscow's economy is running into dire straits.

Five years of war has cost as many as 470,000 lives and forced half of Syria's population from the war.

Continuing in this quagmire might be something Putin does not find appealing. Memories of the disasterous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of Putin's generation, and he will understand that this foreign conquest - and a flailing economy - led to the collapse of the Communist regime in Moscow.

This is something Putin could be close to replicating himself if he stayed in Syria.

"It looks like a little victory, we should be more optimistic about it and it whould be good for us all," said Jawdat.

"After all, optimism is what has got us through the fight against the regime all this time."