Doubt mingles with hope among Syrians after Putin′s move | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 15.03.2016
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Doubt mingles with hope among Syrians after Putin's move

In the wake of Vladimir Putin's unexpected announcement to withdraw the majority of Russian troops from Syria, people on the ground hope that things will improve - but doubts remain. Anna Lekas Miller reports from Azaz.

In Azaz on Tuesday, where protesters were commemorating the five-year anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian uprising, many were jubilant about the news.

"We have defeated all forces fighting with Assad," said Muhammed, a local activist participating in the demonstrations. "The last one left was Russia - nothing is left for you, Assad. It is your end!"

However, while relieved, others were skeptical that the withdrawal would have any political - or more importantly - practical significance for the regime.

"Mostly people are excited about this news," Ahmed, a 33-year-old resident of Aleppo city, which has borne the brunt of the Russian offensive. In the past six months, it's believed that more than 500 people died in the opposition-controlled part of the major city from Russian airstrikes alone.

"But now we are afraid that the Syrian regime's air force will come back," he told DW. "Assad's barrel bombs are just as deadly."

While Russia has largely been in control of the airspace in opposition-controlled areas in recent months, their withdrawal does not rule out the possibility that their artillery will simply be replaced by the Syrian regime.

"And I'm sure Russia will keep helping the regime," he continued. "No one can tell for sure why they're withdrawing."

soldiers loading a cargo plane copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Russian Defense Ministry Press

Will they be gone for good?

What's behind Russia's withdrawal?

"Putin wants to send a message that he is serious about the peace talks," Hadi Abdalhadi Alijla, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies - Canada, told DW.

“But he also is telling Assad - and Tehran - that he is in charge," Alijla continued. "He is saying it's me, not you, who leads the game with the West."

Despite violations from both the regime and the opposition, a fragile ceasefire has lasted for slightly longer than two weeks in opposition-controlled areas. After several failed starts and postponements, peace talks have also once again begun in Geneva.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, a political and strategic commentator with Hawa Smart News Agency, said that despite the significance of the withdrawal of ground troops and air forces, several elements of Russian military infrastructure would remain inside Syria.

"Russia is not leaving Syria completely," he told DW. "They still have a base inside of Syria, and C300 missiles, ready to be used, and launched at any moment."

Changes on the ground

Dr. Salah Safadi used to treat patients in Aleppo, where he is originally from, but has not been able to travel there in recent weeks, due to the main road being closed between Aleppo and Azaz. While he has focussed his attention on the needs of thousands of displaced people waiting in camps along the Turkish border, he hopes to return to his projects in Aleppo soon.

“Maybe it will help us catch our breath a little bit - and focus on giving more quality care, instead of doing lifesaving work," he said optimistically. While Dr. Safadi heads a nutrition program for children at one of the hospitals in Aleppo, this and similar programs have been forced to take a backseat due to the severity of the injuries caused by Russian airstrikes, which are notorious for being imprecise and causing extraneous casualties

However, Dr. Safadi is not optimistic that the reprieve will last for long.

"As long as there is no political solution, the war will continue," he told DW. "The opposition will take this chance to attack the regime and the Kurdish militias - we will have more casualties, more injuries, more people coming to the hospitals."

With many forces still on the ground, Dr. Safadi anticipates that his work is far from over. "It will keep being a nightmare."

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