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Russia’s surprise withdrawal resonates from battlefield to peace talks

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia will begin pulling most of its military from Syria. (Video: The Washington Post)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's snap decision to pull warplanes from Syria on Tuesday rearranged the lines of the grinding conflict — and solidified Moscow's influence not only on the battlefield but also at the negotiating table.

Russian aviators lifted off from air bases in Syria and arrived in Russia to a hero’s welcome six months after the Kremlin’s stunning decision to send forces to help its key Middle East ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Russia said it would leave powerful antiaircraft systems in Syria, giving it iron leverage in the region and preserving the option of a speedy return.

The surprise withdrawal — apparently taken without consulting with Assad — jolted the peace discussions underway in Geneva and unnerved Syria and its allies. Russia’s pullout will put significant pressure on Assad to work out a power-sharing agreement with the opposition, many analysts said, amid signs that the Syrian leader was being less accommodating to Putin than the Kremlin may have wished.

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Aleppo, Syria, March 10th, 2016: Aleppo souk in the Old City. Credits: Lorenzo Tugnoli for the Washington Post (Lorenzo Tugnoli for the Washington Post)

It also won immediate diplomatic attention from the United States, something Putin has long hungered for. Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to travel to Moscow next week to discuss the withdrawal and options for political transition in Syria.

Russian leaders said they would intensify their efforts to combat “terrorism” in Syria, leaving a mist of confusion around the precise contours of their plans, which may be exactly what they wanted to do.

Russian advisers embedded with the Syrian military plan to remain, Russian media reported, citing unnamed sources.

“We will not ease” the fight, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. “We will intensify it. But for that end we do not need the contingent that is present today.”

The pullout — on the fifth anniversary of the start of peaceful protests in Syria — came after a six-month operation in which Russia whisked Assad from the verge of defeat and made it nearly impossible for him to be deposed by force. But there were growing signs that the Assad regime was pushing to recapture all of the territory it has lost, an effort that could have taken far longer and risked embroiling Russia in a long, costly war.

Instead, Russia is leaving a reduced force at its naval and air bases in Syria, and does not plan to remove its potent S-400 surface-to-air missile system, a senior Russian official said. That means that Russia will continue to control Syrian airspace, a deterrent to nations — such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even the United States — that might contemplate instituting no-fly zones over parts of Syrian territory.

The high-tech antiaircraft system significantly alters the balance of power in Syria and gives Russia a major foothold in the Middle East.

“When it is seen that the political component will move forward successfully, and the Syrian army and police are capable of destroying hotbeds of terrorism in Syria on their own, then we will possibly think about the S-400” and its removal, Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the Interfax news agency.

No “Plan B” at Syrian peace talks

But even if a part of the force remains, the broader withdrawal suggests that Putin’s largest strategic coup may have been knowing when to pull back before he got embroiled in another resource-sucking Mideast conflict. President Obama had suggested that was the trajectory of the Russian intervention.

“It’s better to leave during a truce than to leave during a war,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Because to leave during war means being on the defensive. Leaving during a truce is victory.”

In the West, observers said that Putin may truly be searching for a way to twist Assad’s arm into a deal now that Russia has averted the possibility of the violent removal of a key Arab ally.

“I think he’s giving peace a chance but taking out a huge insurance policy,” said Cliff Kupchan, a longtime Russia analyst who is chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis group. “It’s a well-fortified breathing space for diplomacy.”

Assad’s envoys and representatives from the Syrian opposition were engaged in U.N.-brokered talks this week, although they appeared to be starting slowly.

The Russian pullout “will have an actual impact on the talks,” Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy leading the bargaining, said after meeting with representatives from the opposition delegation. Negotiations have “new momentum,” he said.

Diplomats and opposition members said the Russian move appears to have caught the Syrian government delegation to the talks off guard. As a result, they expect the talks to take a more serious course than the previous round, which unraveled because of the government’s Russian-backed offensive near the strategic Syrian city of Aleppo.

“I think the Syrian regime is feeling a little hung out to dry” because of Putin’s announcement, said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the issue publicly.

But thorny issues remain. The opposition notified de Mistura of its concern about a lack of promised humanitarian aid to besieged Syrians and detainees held in government prisons.

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In central Damascus on Tuesday, there was little sign of the anniversary of the conflict, which began with mass protests against Assad’s government. The regime does not mark the occasion. Streets were filled with commuters and shoppers as usual in a city that has taken on a new air of confidence in recent months since the Russian intervention.

Syrian state media tried to play down the significance of Russia’s pullback. State television stressed that the decision was made in coordination with the Syrian government, even though a day earlier the Kremlin said it had not consulted with its Syrian partners before the move.

Other allies of the Assad government also said they were surprised by the Russian announcement.

The snap pullout “came as a shock,” said an official with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia that has sent fighters to Syria to aid Assad. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the group’s internal deliberations.

“We have to wait and see the real intentions of the Russians, because at the end there is fear that Hezbollah would be paying the price,” the official said.

Opponents of the Syrian regime appeared eager to take advantage of the turnabout. A commander of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-aligned faction fighting in Syria, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the group was preparing an offensive “in the next 48 hours.”

Naylor reported from Geneva. Loveday Morris in Damascus, Syria; Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Andrew Roth in Moscow contributed to this report.

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