The focus in the conflict in Syria is shifting from reaction to Russia's withdrawal of forces and toward diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis. Thus, this round of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition parties is more urgent than ever. The talks are expected to move beyond preliminaries to more substantive issues during the remaining sessions in this phase of negotiations, scheduled to last through March 24.
Peace plans shared by loyalists and rebels with U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura were not made public, but both sides are expected to reject a federalist solution to the crisis, a proposal put forth by Kurdish groups. A Kurdish vision for a future Syria includes not only a region in the north that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds, but also a federalist model for all of Syria, Nawaf Khalil of the Democratic Union Party said. Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, who leads the government team of negotiators at the Geneva talks, dismissed that possibility. He said the negotiations in Switzerland are meant to discuss the unity of Syria and how to preserve its territorial integrity, adding that any plan to create divisions among the Syrians would fail. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official flatly rejected the idea of a political solution in Syria that did not include national unity.
As the talks progressed in Geneva, fighting in Syria raged on. Russian bombing sorties supported Syrian loyalist advances against Islamic State forces on the outskirts of Palmyra even as two groups of Russian aircraft departed the country. There were also reports of intensifying skirmishes between the Kurdish People's Protection Units and the pro-government National Defense Forces militia in al-Hasaka province in the country's northeast.
Russia's continuing involvement in combat operations came amid widespread praise for its March 14 announcement that its forces would withdraw. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin the week of March 21 to discuss the Syria crisis. Kerry expressed hope that the Russian withdrawal, combined with the Geneva talks, would present the opportunity for a successful negotiated settlement to the five-year-old conflict. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby echoed that sentiment.
While the international reaction to the Russian troop drawdown has been strong, the drawdown itself was not a surprise. Putin had made clear that Russia's involvement in the Syria crisis would last three to four months and informed allies of its decision ahead of time. The Russian move was discussed as early as January, said one anonymous Jordanian official. Iran, a Russian ally in Syria, said it was also aware of the plans well in advance.