Wary optimism at pullout but Kremlin maintains key role with airstrikes on Isis near Palmyra as Assad forces advance
Rebel groups and opposition activists have reacted with cautious optimism to news of a major withdrawal of Russian forces-out from Syria, saying the Kremlins move would ease the pressure on the opposition and strengthen the prospects for peace talks.
But Moscow signalled it would remain a key player in the embattled country, apparently launching a major air offensive against Islamic State forces near the historic city of Palmyra on Tuesday, paving the route for troops loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad to score incremental advances against the militants.
People are depleted by 5 years of war, told Mohamad al-Ibrahim, an activist in the town of Maarat al-Numan in rebel-held Idlib, which the brunt of much of Russias air campaign. They merely want a light of hope for a solution and the ceasefire is a small step.
Calm descended across much of the rebel-held province in the country as the peace talks in Geneva, brokered by the US and Russia, got under way. Rebel cliques were scheduled to meet on Wednesday in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in an effort to present a united front on the talks.
Rebels are mulling their next move there is little lucidity on whether the tempo of Russian attacks would resume if the ceasefire were transgressed, risking the collapse of the peace negotiations and a surge in violence if the opponent attempted offensives on the ground.
Even if government troops on the frontlines are more vulnerable as a result of the Russian withdrawal, there is no guarantee that Moscow would not come to Assads aid again.
The result, for now, looks just like a standstill that has frozen the situation on the ground, at least temporarily.
Until now the Russian stance is unclear, said an activist close to the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist rebel group. What has been withdrawn is a small amount of Russian troops, and there is definitely something planned for the aftermath.
Syrian government forces-out advanced on Tuesday towards Palmyra under heavy Russian air cover, according to Al-Manar a television station belonging to Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian chairmen regime.
Palmyra was seized last summer by Isis, which destroyed many of the citys monumental ruins. The renewed offensive in the area came as Russian warplanes began leaving Syria following a six-month campaign that was crucial in halting the momentum of opposition fighters and cementing Assads rule in the countrys western provinces.
The announcement on Monday night by Vladimir Putin that Russia would withdraw the majority of its forces caught many analysts by surprise. It gave renewed impetus to peace talks that began in earnest this week in Geneva, and which are aimed at finding a political solution to a conflict that has lasted five years and killed close to half a million people.
The Kremlins sudden decision highlighted its leverage over the peace negotiations amid the absence of options for western powers. The Syrian government sought to downplayed the significance of the Russian withdrawal, saying it had been agreed through a mutual understanding between Assad and the Russian president, and that Moscow would continue to back the regimes forces.
Still, opposition fighters greeted the move. One official said the rebels were leaning towards respecting the truce, telling the Ankara gathering would probably pave the way for a major offensive against Isis in the countrys north, between the city of Aleppo, Syrias commercial capital, and the Turkish border.
The meeting will likely lay the groundwork for a major military operation against Isis and expelling them from[ northern Aleppo ], told Nasser Turkmani, a spokesman for Turkmen opposition fighters who will take part in the gathering.
Such an operation would also allow the rebels to roll back Kurdish forces, which have encroached on rebel-held areas. Turkey has accused the Kurdistan Workers party( PKK) and its affiliate, the Syrian Peoples Protection Units( YPG) of carrying out acts of terrorism. A suicide bombing in Ankara over the weekend that killed more than 30 people was blamed on the PKK.
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