By Joseph Daher

March 31, 2016

The announcement of the withdrawal of the main Russian military forces in Syria by President Putin on March 14 has not yet prevented the continuation of the bombing campaign by Moscow’s military air forces in several regions of the country, in particular to support the army of the Assad regime, and the maintenance of Russian troops in some military bases. Hmeymim Air Base, southeast of the city of Latakia, for example continues to be used by the Russian air force as well as the naval base of Tartus. Putin has promised to protect these bases from land, sea and air. Russian helicopters, armor, long-range rocket batteries and most of the estimated 5,000 Russian personnel also appear to have remained in Syria. Russia is also leaving behind its most advanced S-400 air defense system and Putin declared that Moscow would not hesitate to shoot down “any target” which violated Syrian air space.

The Russian military withdrawal remains therefore very limited.  Besides Russian President Putin said on March 17 that Moscow could scale up its military presence in Syria again within hours and would still bomb “terrorist groups”. He added that Russia would also continue to strengthen the Syrian army with weapons, training and operational guidance.  Reuters news agency reported that “three days after Putin’s March 14 declaration, the Yauza, part of the “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied, left the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk for Tartous, Russia’s naval facility in Syria.Whatever it was carrying was heavy; it sat so low in the water that its load line was barely visible”. The article added that “Its movements and those of other Russian ships in the two weeks since Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal suggest Moscow has in fact shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria than it has brought back in the same period”.

Since March 15, Russian bombing in the city of Raqqa and its outskirts has also killed 55 Syrian civilians, including 13 children, on the weekend of 19 and 20 March.  Moscow’s air strikes have also supported the Assad regime’s army in recapturing the city of Palmyra which had been occupied by Daesh since May 2105.   Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi said Russian aircraft based in Syria were conducting 20-25 sorties a day in support of the Palmyra offensive.  

Until the Palmyra offensive all analysts had admitted that Russia’s bombing campaign was mainly directed at destroying various opposition groups and the remainder of the revolutionary forces, but not ISIS and other Jihadist organizations.  However,  the recapture of Palmyra from ISIS does not mean that Russia is on the side of justice.  As Mohamed Alkhateb,  a Syrian refugee, participant in the Syrian revolution and political prisoner from Palmyra told the British Independent newspaper:  “We the people of Palmyra consider both ISIS and Assad to be criminals.  Both commit crimes against humanity,  kill innocent people and destroy cities and historical relics.  Both displace hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens through their actions. Both detain, torture and kill political activists like me.  Palmyra has not been liberated.  It has just been transferred from one tyranny to another.” (“I’m from Palmyra”, Independent, 3/31/16)

The announcement of Russian military withdrawal came mainly as a diplomatic gesture before the new round of “peace negotiations,” which resumed in Geneva in mid-March with the participation of representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition of the Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (known as the Etilaf in arabic) dominated by right wing, liberal forces and the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. The main Kurdish force in Syria, the PYD(Democratic Union Party) , was not invited to these new rounds of negotiations because of the Turkish government’s opposition and its rejection of the PYD as a “terrorist” group. Much skepticism about the negotiations is nevertheless the rule. The representatives of the Assad regime have for example submitted a document to the United Nation’s mediator Staffan de Mistura as a basis for discussion of a political solution in which the official propaganda of the regime is repeated. You can find within this document the necessity of maintaining the secular nature of the state (while it is far from being the case currently or in the past under the Assad regime), maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and the importance of fighting terrorism, but the document says nothing about a political transition. Previously, the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had said that Assad’s presidency was a red line and that this issue was not subject to discussion.

After the reduction of Russian military airstrikes and the declaration of a ceasefire in early March, massive popular demonstrations have continued to take place throughout the liberated areas of Syria under the slogan “The revolution continues”. Hundreds of protests were recorded on the “Friday of Dignity” on March 18, 2016 from the north to the south of the country. The Syrian revolutionary flag was waved everywhere, while Salafi jihadist forces and their symbols were still absent from these protests in recent weeks. Some small rallies were also held in some towns and villages in the Kurdish majority regions with slogans promoting unity between Arabs and Kurds and solidarity with other cities and regions of Syria.  On March 12, 2016, a big demonstration was held in the city of Qamishli which has a mostly Kurdish population but also includes Arabs and Assyrians.  They commemorated the twelfth anniversary of the Kurdish uprising in Syria in 2004, and also chanted slogans against the Assad regime.

In the town of Maaret al-Numan, near the city of Idlib, protesters continue to oppose the authoritarian practices of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria). Demonstrators also stormed and burned Jabhat Al-Nusra’s offices in the city and demanded the release of democratic activists and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) imprisoned by Jabhat Al-Nusra. The regions around the town have shown their solidarity with revolutionaries of Ma’aret al-Numan and their opposition to Jabhat Al-Nusra.

Although the Russian bombing campaign forced tens of thousands more to leave the city of Aleppo, three hundred thousand residents remain in Aleppo and are still resisting the efforts of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies to break them into submission.   “The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C.  predicts that the regime and its allies will instead pursue a slow ‘siege and starve’ campaign to wear down the city’s defenders without getting so many of their own men killed.”  (Economist, March 5, 2016, p. 44)

The international solidarity of democratic and progressive organizations around the world with the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and dignity, is still lacking.  It is absolutely necessary and must be intensified.