NATO commander: Russia withdrawal could be step to Syria peace deal
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2016
STUTTGART, Germany — NATO’s top military officer on Thursday expressed hope that Russia’s plan to end military operations in Syria could be an important step toward a comprehensive peace deal in war-torn Syria.
“If they then support a good movement toward a settled solution… that puts a responsible government … that is responsive to the needs of a Syrian people in a comprehensive way than this is all good,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander told Stars and Stripes.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the West by surprise when he announced plans to pull out the majority of his forces in Syria, where a Russian bombing campaign has helped stabilize the government of Bashar Assad.
When Russian forces entered the fight in September — a move that also stunned Western observers — the Assad regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse. At the time, White House officials stated that Putin would soon find himself in a quagmire. But that didn’t happened as a forceful Russian intervention turned the tables, propping up Assad and strengthening Moscow’s position as a broker in the region.
Breedlove and other U.S. leaders have been highly critical of the Russian campaign, which the West has said was focused mainly on attacking elements opposed to Assad, rather than the Islamic State group being targeted by the U.S. and other countries. A Russian bombing effort reliant on dumb bombs also has caused excessive numbers of civilian casualties, Breedlove said.
However, a key going forward is ensuring that a negotiated solution is reached in Syria, which will require Russian involvement, he said.
“We all want a peaceful end to this. We all want a government that is responsible to the Syrian people,” Breedlove said. “And we need to end the civil war… so whatever gets us to that point in a responsible manner, I think is important.”
Still, much remains to be seen regarding whether Russia’s planned military pullout will proceed as announced.
“Before we rush to these positive judgements, we need to let the dust settle and see how this works,” Breedlove said.
Moscow has said it plan to leave their powerful, long-range S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, as well as an unspecified number of troops.
On Wednesday, Putin warned that Russia could redeploy its forces to Syria in a matter of hours if need arises, according to a report in The Washington Post.