In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his armed forces to start withdrawing from Syria.
He also told his diplomats to step up the push for peace as United Nations-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war, Reuters reported.
Syria rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin.
Western diplomats said Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 250,000 people, although US officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out.
The anti-Assad opposition simply expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying “nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind”.
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 US-made anti-tank missiles.
Putin made his surprise announcement, made with no advance warning to the United States, at a meeting with his defense and foreign ministers.
Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria, Putin said.
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.
In Geneva, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura told the warring parties there was no “Plan B” other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a “clear roadmap” for Syria failed to make progress.
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 defence 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 the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad’s future – the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.
The move was announced on the day UN-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
The Geneva 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.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
However, he added: “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.”
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