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
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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.”


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 8 min 35 sec ago
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”