Putin orders partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd-L) and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) meet with Russian air force pilots during their visit to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia on December 11, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 12 December 2017

Putin orders partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria

JEDDAH: Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Syria on Monday during a surprise visit to a Russian military base in the country and announced a partial pullout of his troops.
It was Putin’s first trip to Syria, where Russia launched an air campaign in 2015 that allowed the Bashar Assad regime to gain the upper hand against the Syrian opposition. It was also the first visit by a foreign head of state to Syria since the anti-regime protests began in 2011.
Putin ordered “a significant part” of Russia’s military contingent in Syria to start withdrawing on Monday, saying Moscow and Damascus had achieved their mission of defeating Daesh in just over two years.
He made the announcement during a visit to Hmeymim air base in Syria, where he held talks with Assad and addressed Russian forces.
Putin told Russian servicemen they would return home as victors. “The task of fighting armed bandits here in Syria, a task that was essential to solve with the help of extensive use of armed force, has for the most part been solved, and solved spectacularly,” he said. “I salute you.”
He said his military had proved its might, Moscow had succeeded in keeping Syria intact as a “sovereign independent state,” and conditions had been created for a political solution.
He said while Russia might be drawing down much of its forces, its military presence in Syria is permanent and will retain enough firepower to destroy any Daesh comeback.
Russia will keep its Hmeymim air base in Latakia province and its naval facility in the Mediterranean port of Tartous “on a permanent basis,” said Putin. Both bases are protected by sophisticated air defense missile systems.
Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations scholar, said one should not ready much into Putin’s announcement.
“This isn’t a withdrawal, this will simply be a relocation of troops. All Russians troops will be at Hmeymim air base and its naval facility in Tartous,” he told Arab News.
This “maneuvering” stems from the fact that there is no longer an excuse for Russia to stay in Syria because Daesh is finished there and in Iraq, he said, adding: “There’s no pretext anymore to justify the Russian presence in Syria.”
Russia may have accomplished what it wanted to militarily, “but for the people of Syria there’s no light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” Al-Shehri said. “They want to see the end of Assad, the man whose regime spilled the blood of nearly 500,000 fellow Syrians.”
Al-Shehri said Russia should focus on meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people. “It sided with the tyrant, not the people of Syria,” he said. “Now is the time for Russia to hammer out a solution where there’s no room for a killer like Assad.”
Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American analyst and fellow at the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, told Arab News that Russia has long-term basing agreements with the Assad regime, “so as long as Assad is in power, Russian forces will remain to prop him up.”
On Putin’s “mission accomplished” speech in Hmeymim, Shahbandar said: “The manner in which he summoned Assad was clearly indicative of who holds the dominant position in that partnership. The prospect of the Russians withdrawing in total seems unlikely at this juncture.”
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said: “Russian comments about removal of their forces do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria.”
An American official told Agence France-Presse that Putin is likely to carry out a “token withdrawal” of some aircraft, then follow up by demanding that the US pull its forces out of Syria.
EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc is ready to do whatever is needed to support UN-brokered peace efforts, but warned that the idea that “things can go back to normal unfortunately has no real ground.”
She added: “Conflict is still ongoing, even if some wish to pretend it is over. We know very well that on the ground fighting is still going on, civilians are still attacked, and we see that with our humanitarian support every single day inside Syria.”

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

Updated 11 min 43 sec ago

Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

ANKARA: Turkey held its breath on Sunday for the outcome of the elections that could consolidate Recep Tayip Erdogan’s power or deal him a bloody nose from an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Since early morning, people have cast their votes both for the president and parliament. 

The elections mark Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system after the constitutional changes approved in April 2017 to abolish the office of prime minister and reduce legislative power by giving the president extra authority. 

The election campaign in Turkey this time was unfair but competitive. A preliminary report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the restrictions on freedom of association and speech.

Turkish media is almost completely owned by pro-government business groups, and the campaigns of opposition candidates were barely published or broadcast. 

The pro-Kurdish HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas ran his campaign to be the next president from his prison cell. He has been in pre-trial detention since Nov. 2016 on terrorism charges.

Demirtas was a charismatic challenger against Erdogan in the previous presidential election when he was free and getting huge support not only from Kurds but from the liberal and socio-democrat segments of Turkish society. 

The concerns about the elections’ integrity has topped the agenda during the campaigns. Some major changes to election procedures such as relocation of polling stations in south-eastern regions on security grounds and the validation of unsealed ballots have been criticized by a wide segment of society. 

Allegations of vote rigging in the south-eastern province of Urfa, where four people have been killed in pre-election tensions, were immediately heard by the Supreme Electoral Board of Turkey, which said on Sunday that investigations had been opened about the claims. 

“People are illegally placing mass votes and they are physically attacking election observers who attempt to prevent it,” said a young voter in the capital Ankara. “In which democratic country can 'Votes Are Stolen in Urfa' hashtag become a trend topic on Twitter in such a critical day?”

In the subsequent hours, a car stopped in the south-eastern town of Suruc, where three people carrying four bags with ballots were detained. 

This is not the first time that Turkish elections have been marked by fraud allegations. The angry citizens have once again mobilized to prevent any further vote rigging under grassroots initiatives such as Vote and Beyond by becoming volunteer ballot observers and monitoring the vote registration processes. 

Opposition-supporting social media users reminded others to not forget the misdeeds and the injustices that Erdogan’s ruling AKP committed during 16 years of its rule, such as silencing the media, steady weakening the rule of law and many illiberal practices in financial governance. 

But the election campaign has given hope to Erdogan’s opponents that he is no longer invincible.

Millions of enthusiastic voters have felt encouraged enough to pour on to the streets for opposition election rallies. 

The rising star during the campaign, Muharrem Ince, who is the candidate of the main opposition CHP, succeeded in gathering more than five million people in his latest rally in Istanbul, and an estimated three million participants in a rally in Izmir the day before. 

The opposition attempted to capitalize on the economic concerns, made promises for social benefits and committed to broadening democratic rights while improving relations with Western allies. 

One of the secrets behind Ince’s success was surely his non-polarizing political discourse, by giving strong signals that he would be the “president of all” when elected. 

“I would like to raise my child in a democratic and free country. She cannot vote now because she is four years old, but I vote for her future,” said Nalan Celik, a secular CHP voter who attended Ince’s Izmir rally. 

Although there are multiple scenarios for the outcome of the elections, according to most surveys the dominant scenario is Erdogan winning the first round and AKP and its nationalistic ally MHP forming the majority in the parliament.

However, given that there is still emergency rule in the country after the 2016 attempted coup and a spiral of silence among voters, the reliability of the polls is in question.