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Is Russia’s pullout a path to peace in Syria?

Mar 22. 2016
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By Yomiuri Shimbun
Asia News Net

Peace talks between the administration of President Bashar Assad and rebel groups to end the civil war in Syria have resumed after a hiatus of one and a half months.
The ceasefire agreement, which took effect in late February after being brokered by the United States and Russia, has broadly stuck despite sporadic violence. It is laudable to a certain extent that an environment for talks has finally been established.
Five years of civil war in Syria have left more than 250,000 people dead and made several million refugees. Delegates at the resumed talks must seize this fresh opportunity to wipe out extremist groups, including the Islamic State, and halt the exodus of refugees into Europe.
The peace talks are focused on implementing a road map to a transitional government then an election to deliver a new administration. But there are deep rifts between the Syrian government, which demands Assad be retained as president, and anti-government groups demanding his early ouster.
Unless mutual concessions are made on forging a transitional government comprising leaders of both sides, little progress can be expected in the talks. The patient mediation of the United Nations, the United States and Russia, among others is being tested to the brink.
The stance of Russia, which backs the Assad regime, is crucial. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently ordered a partial withdrawal of troops that have been conducting air raids in Syria since last September under the pretext of mopping up extremist groups.
Some observers regard the pullout as a message to the Assad regime that Russia will not commit to a prolonged military engagement. The message is seen as a form of pressure on the regime to fulfill its responsibility to implement the road map.
But Moscow’s move is also likely governed be fears over the military intervention’s drain on a Russian economy already reeling from the collapse of crude oil prices and the weakening of the ruble.
It is a matter of concern that Russia is now taking the initiative in dealing with Syrian affairs after expanding its scope of influence in the country. The United States has fallen further behind as it fails to boost the military capacity of anti-government groups and make arrangements for a new administration to replace the Assad regime.
To bring an end to the civil war, it is essential that the countries concerned cooperate in maintaining the ceasefire and pushing peace talks forward. But Washington and Moscow have little confidence in each other, and Russia continues to take unilateral actions. Moscow reportedly failed to notify the United States in advance of its partial troop pullout.
Meanwhile Russia maintains military bases in Syria and can redeploy withdrawn troops whenever needed.
The US, whose Secretary of State John Kerry is currently on a two-day visit to Russia, is clearly on the back foot in Syria. For the peace talks to make progress, Washington requires a new strategy to deal with Moscow.

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