As the most promising talks for peace in Syria kicked off yesterday in Geneva, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria and a cessation of five-plus months of daily airstrikes that helped the Syrian military regain ground.
In a televised meeting with Russia's foreign and defense ministries, Putin said the recent military actions helped create conditions for peace talks. Syrian state TV quoted President Bashar Assad as saying the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured "victories against terrorism and returned security to the country." While a Pentagon spokesman confirmed Russia has pounded ISIS targets, the strikes have also targeted Syrians opposed to the Assad dictatorship.
In a statement highly critical of the White House, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia and its proxies in Syria have gained an edge thanks to the Putin's military campaign. "They have changed the military facts on the ground and created the terms for a political settlement more favorable to their interests. This likely result is that the Syrian conflict will grind on, ISIL will grow stronger, and the refugees will keep coming."
Last week, Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, announced that the militant group had lost more than 1,158 square miles of territory in Syria and more than 600 fighters over the past month.
Meanwhile in Geneva, a spokesman of the Syrian opposition, Salem Al Mislet, cautiously welcomed the move in hopes it would help the peace talks and a political transition. "As far as I know, the only plan B available is a return to war - and to even worse war than we had so far," Al Mislet said.
The Syrian conflict is moving into sixth year today. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed and half of Syria's population has been displaced, flooding Europe with refugees.
With files from the Associated Press.
William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center - a nonpartisan think tank
Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute - a right-wing think tank; author "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes" (Encounter Books; 2015)