As Russia Withdraws, Who Are Real Winners in Syria?

It remains to be seen how many forces Russia will withdraw from conflict-torn Syria, especially as it intends to maintain an air base and a naval base.

AMMAN, Jordan—Russia announced its withdrawal from Syria as peace talks among all sides to the Syrian war commenced in Geneva, one day before the fifth anniversary of the first protests against the Assad regime.

The talks come some two weeks after the cessation of hostilities brokered by the U.S. and Russia continues to hold despite mutual accusations of violence on all sides.

Russia announced late Monday evening it would begin to withdraw operational forces from Syria. It remains to be seen how many troops and how much hardware Russian President Vladimir Putin will pull out of the conflict-ravaged country, especially as Russia intends to maintain its air base in Latakia and a naval base at Tartus.

Even without a strong Russian military presence, Putin will continue to provide weapons to and financially support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s cash-strapped regime. The Russians will be able to resume airstrikes any time, according to reports.

Two terrorist groups look to be the big winners out of the current situation: Jabat al-Nusra, which has links to al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Perhaps more damaging to America’s strategic position both in the region and globally, other nations now see Russia as an equal to the United States.

The silver lining over the course of the past two weeks surely has been the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria. Approximately 150,000 civilians living in besieged areas have been able to gain access to life-saving medications, food, and support, according to reports.

The Cease-Fire

The talks in Geneva hinge on the fragile cease-fire in Syria holding. Who is a terrorist and who is not a terrorist is an important distinction for the shaky truce in Syria.

The cease-fire has been supported by all major parties, including the Assad regime and the High Negotiations Committee, which includes some 97 opposition groups that agreed to halt the violence for a minimum of two weeks.

The deal does not include terrorist groups—or, as Putin puts it, “ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra, and ‘other terrorist organizations.’”

Assad has had the support of Iranian ground forces, Hezbollah, and Russia as the Syrian dictator continued to target groups he rightly or wrongly defines as terrorists to suit his own strategic interests.

Assad views any group fighting the regime as terrorists. While ISIS holds delineated territory, making targeted airstrikes straightforward, many other relatively moderate opposition groups operate near areas held by Jabat al-Nusra.

The current situation in Syria favors the terrorists. Many smaller ISIS-allied groups and Jabat al-Nusra fighters likely will take cover and operate behind civilians—the very population to whom the cessation of hostilities is meant to bring humanitarian relief.

Violations on Both Sides

Opposition media outlets and rebel militia spokesmen aren’t the only groups claiming violations by the Assad regime or Russia. International media, including CNN, have reported instances of attacks across the country.

One family’s home in rebel-held Aleppo was demolished by an airstrike about 30 hours after the cease-fire went into effect. The most deadly attack on civilians in Aleppo came March 11, after an air raid killed seven civilians, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

To collect evidence of the violations, a civilian advocacy group, the Syrian Campaign, created a crowdsourcing mechanism to monitor the cease-fire.

Another volunteer search-and-rescue humanitarian group operating in local communities throughout Syria collects images and videos and aggregates casualty and attack data through on-the-ground sources, including the “white helmets” of Syria Civil Defense.

The High Negotiations Committee, the main group representing the opposition to the Assad regime, also submitted an official letter to the United Nations outlining what it alleges to be violations of the agreement.

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