03:40 GMT05 August 2020
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    Commenting on the evolving situation in the Syrian conflict, Die Welt suggests that the main conclusion Western leaders should reach from recent developments is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will 'never' voluntarily abandon support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Amid pundits' condemnation of the Syrian government's possible plans to resume its offensive against Islamist militants in Aleppo province, Die Welt Moscow columnist Julia Smirnova writes that the Russian tone on Syria has been restrained, with Defense Minister Shoigu beginning a recent address on international security by calling for a joint Russian-US fight against terrorism in Syria.

    Speaking at the Fifth International Security Conference in Moscow on Wednesday, Shoigu emphasized that Moscow positively assesses the joint work with Washington in Syria, and added, in Die Welt's paraphrasing, that "coordination between the military apparatuses of the two countries, responsible for reconciliation between the parties, will continue."

    At the same time, Smirnova noted, "it's evident that Russia is proud of its presence in Syria. In the lobby of Moscow's 'Ukraina' hotel, guests of the security conference were greed by photos from Syria – of Russian sappers in Palmyra, Syrians waving Russian flags and raising portraits of Putin and Assad above their heads, of Russian warplanes in action."

    "In the US," the columnist added, "the situation is assessed quite differently." In Washington "there is growing concern that two months on, the agreement reached with Russia for a truce between the parties in the Syrian civil war may come to naught. Opposition activists are reporting that the Syrian regime has mobilized troops in the north of the country, outside Aleppo. There fighting continues as if no one had even heard of the truce. On Friday, according to activists, over a hundred people were killed in Aleppo."

    At the same time, "only last week, in an interview with The New York Times, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with concern about Russian heavy artillery being moved up  to the areas of the fighting in Aleppo. Of course, he also pointed out that al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which is excluded from the truce, is involved in the region. However, there are also opposition groups present which had agreed to the ceasefire."

    "It is doubtful," Smirnova notes, citing Kerry, "that the Syrian army can accurately distinguish one group from another. In any case, the taking of Aleppo would be an important victory for the regime."

    Earlier this week, Russia asked the United Nations to add jihadi groups Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham to the list of officially recognized terrorist groups operating in Syria. Opposition figures have warned that such a move against the groups, both of which have representatives in the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, could result in the collapse of the Geneva peace talks.

    "Over a month ago," Smirnova continues, "Russia announced the partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria. The operation was declared to be at an end; Russian pilots were welcomed home as heroes on state television. However, Russian Su-24 and Su-25 aircraft remain in Syria and continue, although less frequently, to perform combat missions. In addition, Moscow has sent new attack helicopters to Syria. Artillery and special forces have also remained in the country, and have actively participated in the liberation of Palmyra from Islamic State, alongside Russian fighters from private security companies."

    Speaking to Die Welt, Russian foreign policy expert Vladimir Frolov suggested that the Russian military presence is similar today as to what it was in the fall of 2015, and that "the announcement of the withdrawal of troops was merely a rhetorical device to reassure the Russian people." At the same, security policy professor and defense analyst Alexander Golts told the German newspaper that he believes that the withdrawal of troops was announced to make it clear to Bashar Assad that Moscow actually wants to help him liberate the whole of Syria.

    Putin 'Will Never Voluntarily Give Up Assad'

    The biggest conclusion which can be reached from recent developments in Syria, Smirnova emphasizes, is that Moscow is has not and will not change its mind about supporting the Assad government.

    "In the medium term, Putin has benefited from his operations in Syria: the US once again needs him at the negotiating table, no one is talking about international isolation anymore. However, in the peace talks, Moscow has demonstrated that it is not prepared to persuade Assad to make big compromises."

    "Differences between the US and Russia are manifested, first and foremost, when the question turns to Assad's future. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Wednesday that Moscow has often heard from its Western partners that for the war in Syria to end, Assad must go."

    "We often hear from our Western colleagues that if Bashar Assad leaves, bloodshed in Syria will end…But these 'good intentions' are hard to believe," Shoigu said, recalling the instances of Iraq and Libya as evidence to the contrary.

    "For Russia," Smirnova notes, citing Golts, that "the figure of Assad is less important than the fact that he will not be displaced as a result of a color revolution."

    "Fighting against color revolution is of principle importance for Moscow," the defense analyst noted. "If Assad can be toppled, then, according to Moscow's logic, something similar [can] happen in Russia," Golts added.

    Meanwhile, speaking at Wednesday's security conference, Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian General Staff, "described the events in Syria as a color revolution which led to the war. A whole topic was devoted to this subject, in which Russian generals agreed that color revolutions are essentially a means of war against countries, and must therefore be fundamentally opposed by the army."

    Ultimately, Smirnova writes, "in Western circles, observers have said that Moscow is not tied to Assad as an individual. But Putin, in conducting his policy, is constantly testing how far he can go. If he does not have to sacrifice Assad, he will not do so." 

    John Kerry, she recalls, told The New York Times that the US is "not going to sit there and let [Putin] do his thing supporting the regime and hammer at the opposition and say, 'this is working'. Obviously, we're not stupid about it." What such rhetoric means for Syria's future, and the future of Russian-US relations, remains to be seen.


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    commentary, analysis, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, John Kerry, Syria, Russia
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