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Putin: Russia to start withdrawing ‘main part’ of its forces from Syria on Tuesday


President Vladimir Putin said on Monday “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, and instructed his diplomats to step up the push for peace as UN-mediated talks resumed in Geneva on ending the five-year war.

Syria announced President Bashar Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin. Western diplomats urged caution and the anti-Assad opposition 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’s announcement – made without any advance warning to the United States – dropped out of the blue.

At a meeting with his defence and foreign ministers, Putin said Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria. 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, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura warned 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 United Nations-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.

Moscow gave Washington no advance warning of Putin’s announcement, two US officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they added that they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia’s military for the withdrawal.

In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence after it had helped the Syrian army to make military gains. However, a statement from the presidency added that Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in “confronting terrorism”.

Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists.

Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted cautiously to Putin’s comments.

“I don’t understand the Russian announcement, it’s a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us,” Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the country’s northwest, told Reuters.

Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. “Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go,” he said.

A European diplomat was also sceptical. “It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” said the diplomat.

“However, I say potentially because we’ve seen before with Russia that what’s promised isn’t always what happens.”


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


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