Russian warplanes flew home from Syria on Tuesday as Moscow started to withdraw forces that have tipped the war President Bashar al-Assad’s way, Reuters reports.
As the first aircraft touched down in Russia, United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura called President Vladimir Putin’s surprise move a “significant development” toward resolving a conflict which this week passes its fifth anniversary, the news agency said.
Assad’s opponents hope Putin’s announcement on Monday that most Russian forces would be withdrawn signaled a shift in his support.
However, Russia is keeping an air base and undeclared number of forces in Syria.
Russian jets were in action against Islamic State on Tuesday. Assad also still enjoys military backing from Iran, which has sent forces to Syria along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Analysts in Moscow said Putin’s acquisition of a seat at the diplomatic top table may have motivated his move to scale back his costly Syria campaign.
Russia appeared to be following through on its pledge, the US White House said, but spokesman Josh Earnest said it was too early to assess the broader implications, adding Moscow did not give the United States direct notice of its withdrawal plan.
US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Putin’s announcement and said he planned to visit Moscow next week for what he called the best opportunity in years to end the war.
The peace talks in Geneva are part of a diplomatic push launched with US-Russian support to end a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.
Opening the indirect talks, de Mistura said Syria faced a “moment of truth”.
A peace process for Syria endorsed by the UN Security Council in December calls for a Syrian-led process that establishes “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”, a new constitution, and free, fair elections within 18 months.
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