Russia turned war around for Syria regime: analysts

Rouba El Husseini
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Analysts agree that Russia's intervention allowed Assad's forces to regain ground and make footholds in key parts of Syria

Analysts agree that Russia's intervention allowed Assad's forces to regain ground and make footholds in key parts of Syria (AFP Photo/Alexey Druzhinin)

Beirut (AFP) - Russia's surprise withdrawal from Syria came after Moscow helped President Bashar al-Assad's regime gain the upper hand in the conflict, analysts say, but the war is far from over.

President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered the "main part" of Russia's forces out of a Syria, saying Moscow's military goals in intervening had been largely met.

Analysts say that after five-and-a-half months and 9,000 sorties by Russian warplanes, the intervention allowed Assad's forces to regain crucial ground and cement their hold on key parts of the country.

"Russia -- and Iran, which also increased its assistance -- (have) managed to turn the war around for Assad," said Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Before September 2015, he was losing ground. This spring, he's been taking territory," said Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis newsletter.

"By the time the ceasefire kicked in, Assad was much better positioned and his opponents were weaker and off-balance."

Russia and the United States brokered a landmark ceasefire between Assad and non-jihadist opposition forces that took effect on February 27, paving the way for peace talks that began this week in Geneva.

Experts say it is unlikely the ceasefire or the talks would have been possible without recent changes on the ground brought about by Russian action.

Moscow's intervention "stopped the rebels' advance and... allowed the regime to take strategic positions in Latakia, Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa," all key provinces around the country, said Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh.

The unprecedented ceasefire has brought clashes between rebels and the regime to a near-complete stop.

- A genuine withdrawal? -

"Mainstream rebels will be under strong Western pressure not to take advantage of the situation, at least as long as negotiations are running," Pierret said.

But the ceasefire does not apply to jihadist forces like the Islamic State group.

"For the jihadists, of course, the temptation to 'test' the Russian withdrawal will be extremely hard to resist," Pierret said.

Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front quickly announced a new offensive on Tuesday shortly after Russia announced the withdrawal.

But in a clear sign that Russia's announcement does not herald Moscow's complete exit from the war, the Russian air force hit jihadist targets around Palmyra on Tuesday as army troops pressed an advance on the ground.

The Syrian army has launched several bids to retake the ancient city of Palmyra in eastern Syria since it fell to IS in May last year.

Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche said many in the opposition were waiting to see whether Russia was indeed withdrawing from the conflict.

"The impact of the announcement of Russia's withdrawal is mainly psychological," he said.

"It might be interpreted as an abandonment of Bashar al-Assad, but as we can see the Syrian opposition is not celebrating. They are waiting to see whether this withdrawal is genuine or not," he said.

And even as it prepared to announce its withdrawal, Russia handed its ally in Damascus a range of new weapons, including helicopters, warplanes and "new tanks capable of resisting TOW missiles," Balanche said.

Lund was also cautious.

"Let's not jump to conclusions. Putin saying he will pull out his forces does not mean he actually will do that, if, for example, the negotiations (in Geneva) falter," he said.

"Of course, this does not mean the war is over."