Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered his military to start the withdrawal of the main part of Russia's forces from Syria, saying that the Russian military intervention had largely achieved its objectives, as UN-mediated talks resumed in Geneva on ending the five-year war.
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Syria said President Bashar Assad had agreed on the "reduction" of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin, denying reports that the Russian announcement reflected differences with the Syrian regime.
Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad's favor after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
At a meeting with his defense and foreign ministers, Putin said Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in the Syrian operation. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province.
Putin said at the Kremlin meeting he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of "the main part of our military contingent" from the country.
"The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process," he said. "I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled."
With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces "have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism", he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned Assad to inform him of the Russian decision. The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks between the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
U.S. officials said they had no advance warning of Putin's decision, and that they have not yet seen indications for a Russian withdrawal.
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Monday about Syria, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders "called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement" to the conflict.
The White House said Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities but "underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria."
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was encouraged by Putin's announcement but that it was too early to say what it means, whether he will carry it out and what may have motivated it.
'Reduced air presence'
The Syrian presidency said in a statement that Syria and Russia have agreed to reduce the presence of Russia's air force in Syria after it helped the Syrian army make military gains.
The Syrian presidency also denied reports that the Russian announcement reflected differences between Damascus and Moscow, and said that the Russian step was coordinated and discussed for some time.
It said that Assad and Putin agreed the move in a telephone call, saying it was in line with "the continuation of the cessation of hostilities and in accordance with the situation on the ground".
It said Russia also pledged to continue its support for Syria in "combating terrorism."
Syria's opposition welcomed the Russian announcement, saying a serious withdrawal would put pressure on Syrian authorities and give peace talks a positive impetus.
"If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push," said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the rebel High Negotiations Committee.
"If this is a serious step it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that."
A senior member of the Syrian opposition told Haaretz that a Russian withdrawal could have a dramatic effect on the negotiations in Geneva, if and when it is implemented. The official, who talked to Haaretz from the Swiss city, said that the Russians were greatly disappointed by the Syrian regime's stance at the peace talks.
"We've received messages that Moscow is disappointed by the regime's conduct and its unwillingness to progress in finding a diplomatic solution. Russia doesn't want to get mired in the Syria mud for long," the senior opposition member said.
However, the official noted that it remains to be seen how Iran responds to the Russian move, and whether it would fill the vacuum left by the Russian troops or agree to a solution that sees Assad out of power.
Moment of truth
Speaking before Putin's announcement, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.
The talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month's "cessation of hostilities", sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad's government and many of his foes.
But the limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations, and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.
The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad's opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table.
The head of the government delegation, Bashar Ja'afari, described his first meeting with de Mistura on Monday as positive and constructive, adding he submitted a document entitled "Basic Elements for a Political Solution".
De Mistura said some ideas had been floated in a meeting he described as a preparatory session, before a further meeting on Wednesday which would focus on core issues. Asked about the gulf between the two teams, he said it was the nature of negotiations that both sides start off with tough positions.
In a sign of how wide the rift is, de Mistura is meeting the two sides separately - at least initially.
The talks must focus on political transition, which is the "mother of all issues", the UN envoy said before his talks with Ja'afari. Separate groups would keep tackling humanitarian issues and the cessation of hostilities.
"As far as I know, the only Plan B available is return to war, and to even worse war than we had so far," he said.