Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Impacts of the Russian withdrawal

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement this week has given rise to a wave of speculation, writes Camelia Entekhabifard in Geneva

world
world
Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to withdraw from Syria this week — on the same day that the Syrian opposition was scheduled to meet with the UN special envoy to the country in Geneva.

It is not known if the Russian move was planned ahead of the talks or was a sudden decision. Whatever the case, Putin’s diplomacy will have a major effect at this crucial time of the fragile ceasefire, which began two weeks ago in Syria. The continuation of the cessation of hostilities agreement is the main goal of the UN and of the countries involved in the crisis.

The cost of the Russian intervention in Syria cannot be the only reason for Putin’s sudden move to order the withdrawal. He has surprised the world with the step, and it seems that he has also surprised his ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Reports this week said that Putin had told Al-Assad of the decision in a telephone conversation and that Al-Assad had simply thanked the Russians for their support.

In Geneva this week some commentators described the Russian move as opportunistic and intended to put pressure on Al-Assad at the talks with the opposition. Some saw the move as benefitting Al-Assad since it could allow him to take the credit for ending the Russian intervention in the country.

Meanwhile, there was silence from the regional players. In Iran, the public is in celebratory mood for the upcoming Persian New Year, Nowruz, and thoughts are on other things besides Syria. On Tuesday, the newspapers in Iran led on the public holiday without a word on the Russian decision to pull out from Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, in Australia for an official visit, was the first official to react to the Russian decision. Iran is the main ally of the Syrian regime, and while it welcomed the Russian intervention on behalf of Al-Assad when it began last September, on Tuesday Zarif welcomed the news released by Kremlin.

He said that the Russian move to begin a withdrawal from Syria was a “positive sign” for the continuation of the ceasefire. His words came after talks with his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, in Canberra and confirmed Iran’s position on the need for a ceasefire and a political solution in Syria.

“The fact that the semi-truce is continuing in Syria is welcome, and this is something we have been asking for for the last two and a half or three years,” Zarif said. “The fact that Russia has announced the start of withdrawing some of its troops indicates that they do not see an imminent need to resort to force to maintain the ceasefire. That in itself should be a positive sign. Now we have to wait and see.”

Despite the general feeling at the Geneva talks that some sort of secret agreement has been negotiated, the fate of Al-Assad is no longer a matter only for Al-Assad’s main supporters. For Iran and Russia, any friendly government that replaces Al-Assad would be welcome, and the political transition could be discussed when the 10-day talks in Geneva wrap up.

Zarif noted that the current ceasefire does not include the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaida-linked extremist groups like Al-Nusra Front and that the international community was united against them. If this is what Iran wants to see — the international community united against terrorism — then a broader coalition could be possible in the near future.

It is possible that major regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may come together on policy on Syria, along with the major international powers under a UN umbrella.

“I hope this message can be driven home everywhere in the region, particularly as we are seeing more and more instances of carnage and terrorism in our region carried out by Daesh,” Zarif said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

If Iran and Russia manage to work together even without the “red line” of maintaining Al-Assad in power, the path will have been prepared for the next round of talks at a higher level and with the presence of the various countries’ foreign ministers.

Could Iran and Saudi Arabia now also be on the point of finding a way of working together?

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