Syrian opposition cautiously welcome Russian military withdrawal plans

Syrian opposition cautiously welcome Russian military withdrawal plans
Syrian opposition factions on Monday cautiously welcomed Russia's plan to withdraw most of its troops from Syria, calling it a 'positive step' if implemented.
6 min read
15 March, 2016
Meslet urged the Russian leader to also withdraw his support for the Syrian president [Getty]
Syria's main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee [HNC] on Monday cautiously welcomed Vladimir Putin's plans to withdraw most Russian forces from Syria as a "positive step" if it goes through.

HNC's spokesman Salem al-Meslet urged the Russian leader to also withdraw his support for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The vital step Russia needs to take is to stand by the side of the Syrian people instead of being on the side of the "criminal regime," Meslet told The New Arab.

"If this step, this action will remove all Russian troops from Syria then it will be a positive step, I believe," he said.

Meanwhile, armed Syrian opposition forces considered the partial Russian withdrawal from Syria as pressure on the Syrian regime.

Spokesman for the Levant Front, a coalition of northern Aleppo-based rebel factions, said that a Russian withdrawal will be a step closer to "victory."

"The withdrawal will come in favour of the Free Syrian Army and a step towards victory for the Syrian people," Colonel Mohammed al-Ahmed told The New Arab.

"But it will be a huge disappointment for the Syrian regime, which was strengthened by the Russian forces and before that the Iranian forces," Ahmed said.

"This step will reflect positively on the opposition and will have a negative impact on the regime," he added.

Russian partial withdrawal

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.

The Russian president ordered his military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, timing his move with the launch of Syrian peace talks Monday — an end game that allows the Russian leader to cash in on his gains and reduce his risks in the conflict.

The start of the negotiations in Geneva offers Putin an opportune moment to declare an official end to the five-and-a-half month Russian air campaign that has allowed Assad's army to win back some key ground and strengthen his positions ahead of the talks. 

The pullback will allow Putin to pose as a peacemaker and help ease tensions with NATO member Turkey and the Gulf monarchies vexed by Moscow's military action.

At the same time, Putin made it clear that Russia will maintain its air base and a naval facility in Syria and keep some troops there.

Syria's state news agency quoted the Syrian president as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent but will not leave the country altogether.

Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with Russia's foreign and defense ministries, Putin said the Russian air campaign has allowed Assad's military to "radically" turn the tide of war and helped create conditions for peace talks.

"With the tasks set before the defence ministry and the military largely fulfilled, I'm ordering the defense minister to start the pullout of the main part of our group of forces from Syria, beginning tomorrow," Putin said on Monday.

He did not specify how many planes and troops should be withdrawn.

Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its Hemeimeem air base, in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, and they have operated at a frenetic pace, each flying several combat sorties on an average day.

But the number of Russian soldiers in Syria has not been revealed.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin that thanks to the Russian air support the Syrian military has extended its control to 400 towns and villages over an area of 10,000 square kilometres.

State TV quoted the Syrian president as saying that the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured "victories against terrorism and returned security to the country."

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on Monday is yet to comment on Putin's move.

Earlier on Monday, de Mistura warned that the only alternative to the negotiations is a return to war, and described political transition in the country as "the mother of all issues."

Meanwhile, the Russian-US-brokered cease-fire that began on 27 February has largely held, but both the Syrian government and the opposition have accused one another of violations.

Putin's announcement, however, appears to indicate that Moscow will largely halt its military action for now. 

Since Syria's civil war started five years ago, at least a quarter of a million people have been killed and half of the country's population has been displaced.

Agencies contributed to this report.