Gazeta.ru is a privately-held, relatively independent online news site owned by SUP Media. As such, it’s worth taking a look at how they are reporting today’s news.
Gazeta has outlined the reasons why Russia has left in an article aptly titled “Russia is Leaving In Order to Stay” by Igor Kryuchkov, Aleksandr Bratersky, Yekaterina Zgirovskaya.
“There is no evidence that the Syrian leader proposed now to the Kremlin to withdraw the Russian military, and I think there can’t be. Under the conditions of a shaky ceasefire, there is no reason to refuse Russian military support. And although the Kremlin reported that they cleared everything with the Syrians, the silence of Damascus on the evening of March 14 is rather confirmation that the withdrawal of forces was a surprise for Assad, and most likely an unpleasant one.”
“Moreover, the Syrian Army and its allies, the Kurds and the Iranian formations have achieved serious successes, and now the threats of the dismemberment of Syria and the threats of the fall of the official authorities in the majority of the territory where 80-85% of the population lives no longer exist.”
“It must be admitted that even now we do not know what exactly the tasks were that Russia set and how in reality they differ from what was said aloud. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s explanation about the annihilation of more than 2,000 bandits — natives of Russia, and once again, their link to ISIS is not mentioned — compels me to surmise that the decision was taken for exclusively political and diplomatic reasons and not military ones.
I think that the main reason was caused by reaching agreements with the USA on a certain division of spheres of influence in the region, the consent of the Americans to Russia’s military presence at the military air base in Hmeimim and the naval base in Tartus, they will remain Russia’s, and Tartus is far more heavily fortified than it was before. I think that certain guarantees were given even Bashar Assad on the part of the Americans for a fairly long period.”
“The start of the diplomatic settlement means that Russia was true to its word, and this will be accepted by the Arab governments,” said Karasik. The Islamic military alliance formed under the aegis of Saudi Arabia must go on playing a role after Russia leaves and Turkey will want to solidify its influence in Syria by attacking its sworn enemies, the Kurds, he said.
Evidence that Russia is not completely winding down its Syrian operation can be found in its announcement that it will keep bases in Syria, and that Putin told Shoigu that “they must be defended reliably from land, sea and air.”
As Lukyanov points out, Russia’s exit from Syria will be like America’s from Afghanistan: the Russian Armed Forces will keep their bases and leave part of their contingent. Dubnov also compared Russia’s Syria withdrawal to the US departure from Afghanistan, leaving only their bases and the forces to protect their bases.
“I think a squadron of planes will remain: the squadron jet fighters, the Su-24, the Su-34, and the helicopters will remain. They will still be carrying out strike assignments. The chief of staff recently said that combat operations are simultaneously conducted in 12 operational regions and directions. In my estimate, during the ceasefire half of the number of such regions was reduced, accordingly, the representation of our group can be reduced by half.”
“First, we are not taking everything out. Second, we’re seeing nevertheless an intensification of the peace process.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama had a phone conversation yesterday about Syria and Ukraine. Here is the White House’s readout:
President Obama spoke today by phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to discuss progress on the implementation of the nationwide Cessation of Hostilities between the Syrian regime and its allies on the one hand and the armed opposition on the other. They discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities with the goal of advancing the political negotiations on resolution of the conflict. President Obama welcomed the much-needed reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation, but stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process. The President also noted some progress on humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria but emphasized the need for regime forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance delivery to the agreed-upon locations, notably Daraya. The President underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.
On Ukraine, President Obama emphasized the need for combined Russian-separatist forces to implement the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and to provide monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with unfettered access to separatist-controlled areas, including the Russia-Ukraine border.
A “partial withdrawal” matches what we’ve reported earlier, but it also matches what we would expect to see. The question remains as to what capability Russia will maintain in Syria once the draw-down is over, but it’s also worth remembering that Russia was able to ramp-up its mission in Syria in a very short amount of time, and much of that preparation included the expansion of runways, barracks, and air-defense installations — work which will now be in place should Russia feel the need to ramp-up its efforts once again.
But there is a wider issue raised by this telephone call, especially in light of comments made about Syria and Ukraine in an in-depth interview with Obama and discussion about his foreign policy in The Atlantic, published last week. In that interview Obama made clear that he had no interest in directly getting involved in either Syria or Ukraine. The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss suggested today in The Daily Beast that Putin may have achieved his primary goal in Syria — breaking the backs of the anti-Assad rebels and securing the Assad regime. So if that is Russia’s goal, and the US is broadcasting that it has no desire to intervene to stop that goal, what incentive is there for Russia or Assad to stop the other things that Obama said he was concerned about — ceasefire violations and lack of humanitarian assistance in both Syria and in Ukraine?
— James Miller
Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, has announced that it will launch an offensive against regime forces within the next 48 hours.
“It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours Al-Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria,” a commander of the group told AFP via Skype.
“The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia (city),” he said, referring to the provincial capital of the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.
“The (Syrian) army let down the Russians. It is a cowardly army,” he said.
Russia “will not make any more sacrifices for a regime that has basically collapsed.”
While Jabhat al-Nusra has long collaborated with other elements of the Syrian opposition in attacking the regime, the announcement may well further heighten tensions with other rebel groups that are largely abiding by the ceasefire agreement, despite continued violations by government forces.
Yesterday protesters stormed buildings controlled by al-Nusra in the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan, following moves by the Islamist group against Division 13, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, that left eight FSA fighters dead and 40 in detention.
A building described as an al-Nusra headquarters was torched.
The Russian Air Force began withdrawing units from the Hmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia province this morning, after a surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin last night.
A group of Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighters and a Tu-154 transport plane left the base this morning and arrived, five hours later, at an airfield near Voronezh in southern Russia.
State TV reported that Su-24 bombers, Su-25 attack jets and helicopters would follow the strike fighters in returning to Russia.
But deputy defence minister Nikolai Pankov, speaking to reporters at Hmeimim, said that forces remaining in Syria would “continue to strike terrorist targets.“
Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration, stressed that Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system would remain in place, along side a “smaller contingent,” providing “protection from the air, sea and ground.” This indicates that some aircraft will stay at Hmeimim.
A military-diplomatic source told Interfax today that up to a thousand Russian servicemen would remain in Syria, with Russia retaining control of both its naval port in Tartus and the Hmeimim base.
According to the source, Russian military advisers are working in “practically every structure of the Syrian government’s military.” This role is expected to grow with the withdrawal of much of the Russian air assets.
The Interpreter‘s editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, looks back at Russia’s intervention in Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a piece for The Daily Beast today:
Maybe Putin's Telling the Truth About Winning Syria
TURNAROUND ARTIST Only suckers take the Russian president's word at face value, but it's hard to deny his intervention likely saved Bashar al-Assad–and that was always the goal. The war in Syria that the Russian government denied it was starting, then swore it was prosecuting against ISIS and "terrorists," has suddenly been won and will come an expeditious end, beginning today.