In Assad heartland, Russian drawdown has Syrians worried

Latakia: In the sun-soaked coastal city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, shopkeeper Khaled says he already misses the sound of Russian warplanes screaming overhead.

When the stylish young man heard that Moscow would pull the bulk of its airforce out of Syria, he was devastated.

“We don’t want them to go, because we love them,” the 30-year-old said, describing Russian soldiers as “kind-hearted and mild-mannered”.

Russian planes have been flying back home from Syria since Tuesday after President Vladimir Putin gave the surprise order to draw down Moscow’s forces in the war-torn country.

The Kremlin leader said his forces had achieved their military goals and expressed hope that ongoing peace talks in Geneva would put an end to the five-year war.

Since the launch of their air campaign in Syria on September 30, several thousand Russian soldiers stationed at Hmeimim air base would venture into nearby Latakia during their spare time.

The city and broader province of the same name are the heartland of Assad and his minority Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam.

Russian servicemen would eat traditional meals at Syrian restaurants and buy trinkets and souvenirs from shops like Khaled’s.

He told AFP that several of his “Russian friends” came to bid him goodbye before they flew back to Moscow.

“I don’t know what the future has in store for us. I’m definitely afraid, but I hope God will protect this country,” Khaled said.

“We used to feel happy hearing the roar of airplanes above us — they made us feel safe.”

– An economic boon -Air strikes by Russia’s warplanes helped regime loyalist fighters advance in rural Latakia, nearby Aleppo province, and Daraa in southern Syria.

On Friday, Russia’s armed forces said jets were still flying “20 to 25 combat sorties each day” to back a government offensive to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State jihadist group.

In Latakia, posters of Putin and former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar, hang side-by-side in Mouin’s sandwich shop.

The thin employee slices shreds of chicken off a spit to make a “shawarma” sandwich — a favourite of his Russian clientele.

For nearly six months, Mouin’s small restaurant was overflowing with “Russian soldiers and their families tasting our sandwiches”.

“The Russians leaving will definitely affect the economic activity here,” Mouin said worriedly.

One of his favourite customers, a Russian serviceman, visited his sandwich shop on Tuesday to tell him: “Sadly, this is the last sandwich I’ll eat in your shop because I have to leave.”

But Mouin said he’s also concerned that Moscow’s drawdown could slow — or reverse — the army’s recent military gains on the ground.

“This is a loss both materially and in terms of morale, because the Russians pushed a lot of military operations forward and scored speedy victories,” he said.

– ‘Why would they do this?’ -Along the Mediterranean seafront corniche, Russian flags billow in the spring breeze as families wander down to the sea.

University student Alaa al-Sayyed, 22, said he was “shocked” when he heard Russia was withdrawing.

“Why would they do this? Now is the height of their progress,” he said.

“Of course, the Syrian army was protecting our country even before the Russians showed up. But I’m afraid things will start regressing, especially since the biggest victories scored by the government were with Russian support,” Alaa said.

But in the nearby Dahiya Tishreen neighbourhood, Tareq Shaabo remained confident.

“They will not let us down,” said the owner of the popular coffee shop “Moscow Cafe.”

He says he opened the cafe back in 2012 and has offered Russian customers free drinks.

“Russia announced a timeframe for its military operations in Syria. This timetable has expired, they finished their mission, and they withdrew,” Shaabo said.

Russia’s presence gave Syrian citizens in Latakia a huge “morale boost”, but it also changed the fortunes of government forces in the long term, according to Shaabo.

Moscow’s air war “destroyed the military, economic, and human resources of the armed (opposition) groups,” giving Syria’s army an advantage even in the event of a withdrawal.

“Russia will not change its position towards Syria. it still supports us, but it will now pursue a political approach” to end the conflict, he said.

Agence France-Presse