NEW DELHI: Damascus has insisted that Russia’s decision to withdraw its troops from Syria came after President Bashar al Assad and President Vladimir Putin discussed the move. Further, a spokesperson for Russia's Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, stated that the decision would not in any way weaken Assad, who Russia continues to back.

The clarifications came after a section of the media projected Russia’s withdrawal as Putin’s attempt at creating a distance between the Kremlin and Assad’s government, as peace talks on the Syria conflict continue in Geneva.

The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee welcomed the move. The pullout is “a positive step which will help to move forward the negotiations,” Salem al-Musle, chief spokesperson of the HNC told reporters in Geneva.

It’s important, however, to not rush in labelling the decision as a shift of policy on the part of Russia toward Syria. Russia has unequivocally backed Assad and indicated that a regime change is not up for discussion, although analysts and diplomats did initially try and interpret the recent move to withdraw troops as an indication that Russia was willing to let Assad go. “Assad can shape the future constitution, but Russia knows he has no choice but to stand aside at some point, otherwise there will be stalemate,” a senior diplomat at the peace talks in Geneva told the Guardian on Tuesday. “The Russians have strengthened Assad’s position enough so he can come to the negotiating table closer to a state of equilibrium, but they want this war to come to an end. They are not inextricably bound up with him, so long as they maintain their influence.”

Russia, however, has since clarified that its decision was not unilateral. Further, the Russian defence minister confirmed that the country’s newly constructed air base, air radar system and some of its weaponry would be maintained in Syria. Russia will also continue carrying out air strikes in Syria -- as it has been doing so, targeting the Islamic State forces but also rebel groups associated with the HNC.

Iran too confirmed that the move was not without prior discussion. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said in a TV interview that “Russia’s decision to withdraw some of its forces from Syria was coordinated and preplanned. It didn’t come as a surprise at all.” Shamkhani added that Tehran and Moscow will continue their military advisory roles in Syria, and that the Syrian army -- backed by Iranian and Russian military advisers -- will continue their advance in regions held by opposition militant groups, including the Islamic State.

In a veiled reference to Assad’s future, Shamkhani said that any solution to the crisis in Syria needed to factor in the mandate of the Syrian people -- as it was up to them to decide their future.

Meanwhile, the supreme leader’s advisor on foreign affairs Ali Akbar Velayati reiterated his support for Assad, and the coalition backing him. He added that Russian operations “transformed the conditions to the benefit of the resistance front.”

The one thing that the move proves is that as far as Syria is concerned, Russia is still calling the shots. This is further corroborated by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s quick announcement that he will be visiting Moscow next week, the Russia foreign ministry spokesperson confirming that the key issue of discussion during Kerry’s visit will be Syria.

However, Russia has its own compulsions. For one, it needs to project itself as a responsible, balanced player on the world stage, with Putin’s main objective being the removal of sanctions levelled against the country. With the upcoming regime change in the USA, analysts believe that Moscow is keen on improving Russian-American relations in the immediate, as the next US President and government may not be as accommodating.

Will a Russian-American tandem emerge, and how will the rest of the world respond to it? The immediate answer to these questions lies in the Syrian peace talks.

(Photo: President Bashar al Assad and President Vladimir Putin)