Russia pullback in Syria risks rift with Iran

Russian military personnel prepare a plane for take off at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Russian warplanes and troops stationed at Russia's air base in Syria started leaving for home on Tuesday after a partial pullout order from President Vladimir Putin the previous day, a step that raises hopes for progress at the newly reconvened U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva.


By HENRY MEYER, ILYA ARKHIPOV, DANA KHRAICHE | The Washington Post | Published: March 16, 2016

Russia's surprise move to start withdrawing military forces from Syria risks a rift with key ally Iran, which remains wedded to keeping Bashar al-Assad in office even as Russia signals growing impatience with his intransigence.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hailed Russia's decision as a "positive sign" of its faith in a cease-fire now in its third week. But pro-Iranian regional newspapers, a barometer of the mood in Tehran, said it endangers gains by the Syrian army and may force Iran to withdraw its own forces.

"It was a total surprise for Iran," said Rajab Safarov, head of the Center for Contemporary Iran Studies in Moscow, who has close contacts with the Iranian government. "It's clear that the pullout of Russian forces will weaken the position of Bashar al-Assad in the future talks with the opposition."

While the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia has been fighting alongside Assad's forces, it was the introduction of Russian air power last September that enabled Syria's army to gain the upper hand in a five-year conflict that it looked to be losing. Moscow's growing focus on diplomacy may now drive a wedge between the allies, analysts said, with Iran resolutely opposed to weakening Assad's rule in order to safeguard its influence in Syria.

The pullback ordered by President Vladimir Putin on Monday was necessary to nudge Assad toward negotiating a settlement as United Nations-backed peace talks resume in Geneva, said Alexander Babakov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament. "A key question is the flexibility and the willingness of the current government to strike a deal," he said in a phone interview.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said before the Geneva talks began that the regime will only accept a limited role for the opposition in government, and Assad's position remains a "red line."

The government in Damascus had told the Kremlin last month that it wouldn't accept a transitional government in the form demanded by the international community, Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper close to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group and Assad, reported on Tuesday. Under the plan backed by major powers, a new body including government and opposition representatives would assume full executive authority, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections a year later.

A power-sharing government "will eventually mean Assad's exit," said Alexander Shumilin, director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's a pivotal moment. Even if he doesn't go immediately, he'll have to go within a matter of months."

Syrian officials told As-Safir, another pro-Assad newspaper in Lebanon, that the Russian withdrawal had surprised Damascus and came at a time when government forces were close to taking over Palmyra, expelling Islamic State which seized the UNESCO-listed historic city last May. The officials criticized the partial truce brokered by the U.S. and Russia, which they said had relieved pressure on opposition forces.

Salem al-Muslet, chief spokesman for the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, expressed optimism that Russia has decided to end its unconditional support for Assad.

"If there is a real pressure, these negotiations will achieve something," al-Muslet said in an interview in Geneva. "If there is no pressure on Assad, they will just play for time."

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Moscow next Tuesday for a possible meeting with Putin to discuss coordination over the Syrian peace effort, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Still there is skepticism in western capitals. Peter Westmacott, former U.K. ambassador to the United States, said it isn't yet clear if Putin has decided he's accomplished his mission to prop up Assad so the Syrian leader can remain the "dominant player into the future" or has acted to avoid getting bogged down in a Vietnam-style quagmire.

"We honestly don't know if this is an act of faith and real commitment to the international process," Westmacott said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Tuesday.

A top Russian military official said on Tuesday that some airstrikes will continue in Syria. While the Kremlin has announced that much of its military infrastructure will remain intact, including naval and air bases at Tartus and Latakia, a reduction of assets will limit Russia's offensive military capabilities in Syria, Eurasia Group said.

Iran's concern is that Russia is considering some "radical" outcome in Syria, said Safarov, the pro-Iranian expert in Moscow. "For Iran, Syria without Bashar al-Assad isn't Syria," he said.

A video screen grab shows fighting in Syria.

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