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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Syria: March 15, 2016

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
"Russia is Leaving Syria in Order to Stay" - How The Russian Media Views Today's News
There has been a lot of analysis and speculation around President Vladimir Putin's announcement that he is withdrawing Russian forces from Syria. The brief White House description of President Barack Obama's phone conversation with Putin aptly calls the move "a partial withdrawal." How much and how fast this withdrawal is made depends on how much you support and believe in Putin and his pledges. is a privately-held, relatively independent online news site owned by SUP Media. As such, it's worth taking a look at how they are reporting today's news.

Gazeta has outlined the reasons why Russia has left in an article aptly titled "Russia is Leaving In Order to Stay" by Igor Kryuchkov, Aleksandr Bratersky, Yekaterina Zgirovskaya.

As we're reported, Russia will keep its bases in Tartus and Lattakia and some kind of "aviation maintenance center". In his upbeat message about the withdrawal, Putin said it would "become a good signal for all the conflicting sides." But "it's far from a fact that some conflicting sides perceive this news in exactly this way," says Gazeta.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu personally briefed Putin on the alleged figures of the operation, which began September 30 but was prepared long before that: 9,000 Russian flights, and 2,000 "terrorists" annihilated, including natives of Russia, among them 17 field commanders.

Shoigu said that Russia's air strikes "seriously halted and in certain places completely put an end to the resource supply of the terrorists, and cut off the hydrocarbons trade." Shoigu claimed that the terrorists' main supply lines to sell oil and obtain guns and ammunition were cut off -- without specifying which terrorists, as this term isn't only used by Russia and Assad to describe ISIS but also anti-Assad rebels.

Shoigu also said "209 oil extraction and fuel pumping facilities" were destroyed and "no less than 2,000 unlawful petroleum deliveries" were intercepted. Given that Russia bombed water treatment plants and other civilian targets, this remains to be proven.

Most preposterous was Shoigu's claim that Russia "liberated 10,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory with 400 population centers." Of course, "liberation" would mean coming under the thrall of government troops for many Syrians, and it remains to be seen what this "liberation" means, and whether it is more like life in the "Donetsk People's Republic" than before the war in Syria.

Asked for more specifics, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin's decision to withdraw the troops was "a framework" and the details would be publicized later.

Peskov stressed the read-out of the phone call between Putin and Bashar al-Assad at which claimed that Assad "thanked the Russian military for its heroism" although he conceded that "the fate of Assad himself was not discussed during the conversation," as Gazeta pointed out. 

In a piece for Deutsche Welle, Russian journalist Konstantin von Eggert is among those who is not persuaded that Assad asked for Russian troops to leave, just as he was said to ask for them to intervene in September:

"There is no evidence that the Syrian leader proposed now to the Kremlin to withdraw the Russian military, and I think there can't be. Under the conditions of a shaky ceasefire, there is no reason to refuse Russian military support. And although the Kremlin reported that they cleared everything with the Syrians, the silence of Damascus on the evening of March 14 is rather confirmation that the withdrawal of forces was a surprise for Assad, and most likely an unpleasant one."
Gazeta decided that the White House was also caught by surprise, as "the American leadership cannot forecast for now how the withdrawal of Russian armed forces will influence the situation in Syria."

And Gazeta notes Russia "officially" became involved in the conflict in September 2015 without going into the massive support for Assad that preceded it, then equates Russia with the West:  Just as the Western militaries did not deploy ground soldiers, Russia used airplanes and military ships in Syria -- a ground operation was ruled out. But unlike the pro-Kremlin and state-run media outlets, Gazeta concedes that while the Russian air force "couldn't completely turn around the situation in Assad's favor," it did "enable the strengthening of the positions of his forces and also led to the siege of Aleppo."

Viktor Murakhovsky, a military expert told Gazeta that Putin's decision was based on the fact that "the main regions where the population of Syria live were liberated." He believes that whereas before the war, Assad was in retreat, now the Syrian Army is fighting on its own, plus the Russians and Americans have a list of several dozen groups that are observing a ceasefire. Murakhovsky noted confidently:

"Moreover, the Syrian Army and its allies, the Kurds and the Iranian formations have achieved serious successes, and now the threats of the dismemberment of Syria and the threats of the fall of the official authorities in the majority of the territory where 80-85% of the population lives no longer exist."
But he also said Russia would go on striking ISIS and Al-Nusra positions despite the withdrawal.

A hybrid withdrawal?

Arkady Dubnov, a veteran Russian correspondent who has covered Central Asia for many years pointed out that not a word about ISIS was said in the Kremlin's announcement yesterday.

"It must be admitted that even now we do not know what exactly the tasks were that Russia set and how in reality they differ from what was said aloud. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's explanation about the annihilation of more than 2,000 bandits -- natives of Russia, and once again, their link to ISIS is not mentioned -- compels me to surmise that the decision was taken for exclusively political and diplomatic reasons and not military ones.

I think that the main reason was caused by reaching agreements with the USA on a certain division of spheres of influence in the region, the consent of the Americans to Russia's military presence at the military air base in Hmeimim and the naval base in Tartus, they will remain Russia's, and Tartus is far more heavily fortified than it was before. I think that certain guarantees were given even Bashar Assad on the part of the Americans for a fairly long period."

"As for terrorism -- it can never be defeated," said Dubnov. "Now we (Russia) will advance this thesis."

Russia's withdrawal comes at the start of another round of UN-sponsored peace talks and now every country involved has to sharply change its tactics, says Gazeta.

As Theodor Karasik, a Middle East analyst at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC told Gazeta, Russia's main purposes of "saving the Syrian regime" and re-grouping the Syrian military were achieved. 

"The start of the diplomatic settlement means that Russia was true to its word, and this will be accepted by the Arab governments," said Karasik. The Islamic military alliance formed under the aegis of Saudi Arabia must go on playing a role after Russia leaves and Turkey will want to solidify its influence in Syria by attacking its sworn enemies, the Kurds, he said.

But Karasik also pointed out that Assad's view of the future may differ than Russia's; Assad wanted to battle "to a final victory" but Russian diplomats want a political solution. "This is a signal to Damascus that Russia does not intend to do all the work for it," says Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

A Russian diplomat who asked not to give his name told Gazeta that Syria's position was viewed negatively. "We virtually saved the regime in the hope of a negotiation process, but its representatives are essentially taking the foundation out of the negotiation process."

Evidence that Russia is not completely winding down its Syrian operation can be found in its announcement that it will keep bases in Syria, and that Putin told Shoigu that "they must be defended reliably from land, sea and air."

As Lukyanov points out, Russia's exit from Syria will be like America's from Afghanistan: the Russian Armed Forces will keep their bases and leave part of their contingent. Dubnov also compared Russia's Syria withdrawal to the US departure from Afghanistan, leaving only their bases and the forces to protect their bases.

Back in December, Putin had said Russia didn't need a permanent base in Syria, says Gazeta; if necessary, forces can easily be deployed there. Lukyanov points out that at the time, Putin's remarks were seen as "cunning," but today's developments "prove this was not so,"  he says.

But this remains to be seen, says Gazeta. Murakhovsky said there were 60 airplanes, and that half or even two-thirds of them would be withdrawn, but some number will remain "because strikes against radicals will continue," as he put it.

"I think a squadron of planes will remain: the squadron jet fighters, the Su-24, the Su-34, and the helicopters will remain. They will still be carrying out strike assignments. The chief of staff recently said that combat operations are simultaneously conducted in 12 operational regions and directions. In my estimate, during the ceasefire half of the number of such regions was reduced, accordingly, the representation of our group can be reduced by half."

Gazeta also notes that the state of the Russian economy began to seriously worry Putin about a month ago. If back in November 2015, Syria occupied all of Putin's thoughts and words, now he is almost indifferent. Last week it became clear that the Defense Ministry doesn't lend all the great of significance to Syria as it did in December and January.

Russian sources close to the situation around Syria told Gazeta nonetheless:

"First, we are not taking everything out. Second, we're seeing nevertheless an intensification of the peace process."
US sources told Gazeta say that the Russian-American dialogue on Syria "has been very intense" in recent weeks and that there has been "constant contact both at the level of the military and the level of diplomats."

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Obama Speaks To Putin About Russia's "Partial Withdrawal" From Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama had a phone conversation yesterday about Syria and Ukraine. Here is the White House's readout:

President Obama spoke today by phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to discuss progress on the implementation of the nationwide Cessation of Hostilities between the Syrian regime and its allies on the one hand and the armed opposition on the other.  They discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities with the goal of advancing the political negotiations on resolution of the conflict.  President Obama welcomed the much-needed reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation, but stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process.  The President also noted some progress on humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria but emphasized the need for regime forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance delivery to the agreed-upon locations, notably Daraya.  The President underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.

On Ukraine, President Obama emphasized the need for combined Russian-separatist forces to implement the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and to provide monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with unfettered access to separatist-controlled areas, including the Russia-Ukraine border.  

A "partial withdrawal" matches what we've reported earlier, but it also matches what we would expect to see. The question remains as to what capability Russia will maintain in Syria once the draw-down is over, but it's also worth remembering that Russia was able to ramp-up its mission in Syria in a very short amount of time, and much of that preparation included the expansion of runways, barracks, and air-defense installations -- work which will now be in place should Russia feel the need to ramp-up its efforts once again.

But there is a wider issue raised by this telephone call, especially in light of comments made about Syria and Ukraine in an in-depth interview with Obama and discussion about his foreign policy in The Atlantic, published last week. In that interview Obama made clear that he had no interest in directly getting involved in either Syria or Ukraine. The Interpreter's editor-in-chief Michael Weiss suggested today in The Daily Beast that Putin may have achieved his primary goal in Syria -- breaking the backs of the anti-Assad rebels and securing the Assad regime. So if that is Russia's goal, and the US is broadcasting that it has no desire to intervene to stop that goal, what incentive is there for Russia or Assad to stop the other things that Obama said he was concerned about -- ceasefire violations and lack of humanitarian assistance in both Syria and in Ukraine?

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Jabhat al-Nusra Announce New Offensive Following Russian Draw-Down

Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, has announced that it will launch an offensive against regime forces within the next 48 hours.

AFP reports:

"It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours Al-Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria," a commander of the group told AFP via Skype.

"The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia (city)," he said, referring to the provincial capital of the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect.

"The (Syrian) army let down the Russians. It is a cowardly army," he said.

Russia "will not make any more sacrifices for a regime that has basically collapsed."

While Jabhat al-Nusra has long collaborated with other elements of the Syrian opposition in attacking the regime, the announcement may well further heighten tensions with other rebel groups that are largely abiding by the ceasefire agreement, despite continued violations by government forces.

Yesterday protesters stormed buildings controlled by al-Nusra in the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan, following moves by the Islamist group against Division 13, an affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, that left eight FSA fighters dead and 40 in detention.

A building described as an al-Nusra headquarters was torched.

-- Pierre Vaux
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Air Force Begins Withdrawal From Syria, But Will Keep 'Striking Terrorist Targets'

The Russian Air Force began withdrawing units from the Hmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province this morning, after a surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin last night.

A group of Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighters and a Tu-154 transport plane left the base this morning and arrived, five hours later, at an airfield near Voronezh in southern Russia.

Translation: #SYRIA #VIDEO A group of Russian Air Force aircraft fly from the Hmeimim airbase to their permanent deployment base on Russian territory.

State TV reported that Su-24 bombers, Su-25 attack jets and helicopters would follow the strike fighters in returning to Russia.

But deputy defence minister Nikolai Pankov, speaking to reporters at Hmeimim, said that forces remaining in Syria would "continue to strike terrorist targets."

Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration, stressed that Russia's advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system would remain in place, along side a "smaller contingent," providing "protection from the air, sea and ground." This indicates that some aircraft will stay at Hmeimim.

A military-diplomatic source told Interfax today that up to a thousand Russian servicemen would remain in Syria, with Russia retaining control of both its naval port in Tartus and the Hmeimim base.

According to the source, Russian military advisers are working in "practically every structure of the Syrian government's military." This role is expected to grow with the withdrawal of much of the Russian air assets.

The Interpreter's editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, looks back at Russia's intervention in Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a piece for The Daily Beast today:

Maybe Putin's Telling the Truth About Winning Syria

TURNAROUND ARTIST Only suckers take the Russian president's word at face value, but it's hard to deny his intervention likely saved Bashar al-Assad--and that was always the goal. The war in Syria that the Russian government denied it was starting, then swore it was prosecuting against ISIS and "terrorists," has suddenly been won and will come an expeditious end, beginning today.

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Mar 15, 2016 13:00 (GMT)
-- Pierre Vaux