Russia's military plans to reduce its involvement in Syria this year as it nears the completion of its goals there, chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov has said. Two Russian bases are to remain.
Gerasimov said the drawdown could start before the end of the year. "There is very little left to do before the completion of military objectives,"the General told reporters on the sidelines of diplomatic meetings in Sochi on Thursday. "Of course, a decision will be made by the supreme commander-in-chief and the deployment will be reduced,"
After the withdrawal, some military would be left behind. The ceasefire-monitoring center is to remain, the General said: "We will leave the Center for Reconciliation, our two military bases (in Tartus and Hmeimim) and several necessary structures to maintain the state which has developed at this time," Gerasimov said.
President Vladimir Putin met this week with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the leaders of Turkey and Iran. He said the Syrian civil war was reaching "a new stage" after the country had "been saved as a state."
Russia's military support of al-Assad, most notably through airstrikes since October 2015, has been crucial in reducing IS's territory and defeating other Syrian opposition forces.
Read more: Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani hold talks on Syria
Peace talks to be hosted by Russia
Putin and Assad met in Sochi earlier in the week, discussing their future plans for the country, moving from conducting military operations to a political solution to Syria's conflict.
With IS and other opposition forces significantly weakened, Assad is finding himself in a much stronger bargaining position when it comes to future peace talks.
Putin also won the backing of regional powers Turkey and Iran to host a Syrian peace conference, with Russia thus taking center-stage in the push to end Syria's civil war, which started in 2011.
A top Turkish ruling party official said Ankara supported a political solution for Syria but made clear that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still drew a "red line" when it comes to retaining Assad as Syria's leader.
Syrian opposition groups meeting in Saudi Arabia on Thursday called for direct and unconditional talks with the Syrian government. Early Friday they announced an agreement to send a united delegation to UN-brokered talks in Geneva next week.
Some 140 opposition figures met in Riyadh over two days. "We have agreed with the two other (opposition) branches to send a united delegation to participate in the direct negotiations in Geneva," Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC), told reporters in Riyadh.
The role of the Syrian leader has been a major stumbling block in reaching an agreement between the Syrian opposition groups. The HNC and its allies have insisted that Assad step down before the start of a transitional phase to end the Syrian war.
War with no end
Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.
Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.
The northern watchman
Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.
The eastern guardian
The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.
The western allies
A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.
Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.
The new jihadists
"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is facing defeat in both countries after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.
The old jihadists
IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.
The Persian shadow
Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.
ss/kms (Reuters, AP)