The partial withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Syria came as a surprise to many. But DW's Loay Mudhoon says that its message to President Assad is evident: He must finally negotiate with the opposition.
There is no question of it: Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised friend and foe alike with his decision to withdraw most of his country's troops from Syria.
In the Arab world, almost all of Assad's opponents welcomed the move - above all Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are the main supporters of the "moderate" Syrian opposition forces. Both countries hope Russia's step will give a boost to the current Syria talks in Geneva.
In the case of the Assad regime, however, joy at the partial Russian withdrawal seems more subdued. In the past few days, Arabic media have reported multiple times on major differences of opinion between Putin and Assad that occurred shortly before Putin announced the withdrawal plans.
This disagreement between Assad and his protecting power regarding the goals of Russia's intervention had already made itself felt directly after the recent ceasefire went into force: In interviews with the international press, Syria's dictator made no bones about his intention to bring the entire country under his control. This candor provoked several Russian diplomats to put him in his place - and to point out the necessity for a political resolution of his country's conflict.
This incident shows clearly that Russian interests are not entirely congruent with those of Assad. It is true that Putin wanted to save the Assad regime from destruction at the hands of rebels. He also aimed to weaken the Western-backed "moderate" rebels, with the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" playing little or no role in his considerations.
But Putin on no account intended to help his vassals in Damascus win a military victory: This would have drawn the Russian army into a brutal and expensive war against the Sunni majority population in Syria. A second Afghanistan would massively damage Russia's economic and political interests.
Putin has now to a great extent achieved his goals: The Assad regime has been stabilized with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah and various Shiite militia. It has been possible to extend the strategically important military base in Tartus; a second base was even built. And a change of regime along the lines of the NATO intervention in Libya is no longer possible. Russia has thus asserted itself as the pioneer of a new authoritarianism that apparently aims to contain and destabilize democracies.
But there is something still more important: With its bloody intervention, Russia was able to demonstrate to the West, which has remained passive in the Syria conflict, that this former world power, recently disparaged by US politicians as a "regional power," is firmly back on the stage of international politics. It at any rate seems almost unimaginable that there could be a political resolution of the complex proxy war in Syria that goes against Moscow's will.
For this reason, Russia's troop withdrawal is to be seen as a signal to Assad. Putin wants him to enter at last into serious negotiations with the opposition so that the remaining state and above all the territorial unity of Syria is preserved. But so far, Assad doesn't really seem to be considering sharing power.
In view of the fact that only a transitional Syrian unity government without Assad can pave the way for a political resolution, all Western hopes for an end to the brutal war in Syria are pinned on - of all people - Putin.
But for this outcome to occur, Putin would have to be prepared to drop Assad.
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