Syrian jihadists’ morale ‘sky high’ as Russia withdraws

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Anti-Assad regime rebels, jihadists and activists received a huge morale boost with the surprise withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.

Moscow’s move is also seen by the opposition as a major blow for the Damascus regime.

Nusra Front is said ready to go on the offensive "within 48 hours" after Russia's withdrawal from Syria.
Al Qaida affiliate Nusra Front is said ready to go on the offensive “within 48 hours” after Russia’s withdrawal from Syria.

“Our morale is sky high. The regime will not be able to survive alone,” said Raed al-Elewi, a commander for the Jaish al-Tahrir (Liberation Army) rebel group in Hama province in central Syria.

“This is a victory” for opposition forces seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad, he told AFP. “Russia has not succeeded in fulfilling its goal of saving Assad.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 14 ordered the “main part” of Russia’s forces to withdraw from Syria, nearly six months after launching a major air campaign in support of Assad.

Moscow’s intervention enabled the embattled and exhausted Syrian army to recapture several areas that they had lost to the opposition.

In Aleppo province, where Assad’s forces made major advances backed by Russian air cover, rebel commander Modar Najjar celebrated the announcement.

The Russian withdrawal “shows that they were unable to bring an end to the revolution,” Najjar told AFP, adding that the rebels’ morale was “very high.”

“Russia will go down in history as having assisted the killer Bashar (Assad) in the past five months, resulting in…civilian deaths and the destruction of dozens of hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure,” said Najjar, a leading commander of the Jabha Shamiya (Levant Front).

“The revolution will continue until the fall of the regime.”

Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh, said moderate rebels will be under pressure from their Western supporters not to take advantage of the situation despite the morale boost, as opposition and regime delegations hold indirect peace talks in Geneva.

“For the jihadists, of course, the temptation to ‘test’ the Russian withdrawal will be extremely hard to resist,” Pierret said.

The morning after Putin’s announcement, a commander on the ground for Al Qaida affiliate Nusra Front said his jihadists would go on the offensive “within the next 48 hours.”

“Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia (city),” he told AFP on condition of anonymity, referring to the provincial capital of the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

A military officer from the Syrian army admitted he too was surprised by the announcement.

“We don’t know what happened,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity.