Negotiators locked in peace talks believe the Russian president’s shock decision to withdraw troops from war-ravaged Syria suggests he could be prepared to force Assad to step down.
Russia’s military campaign – which Putin has hailed as a “mission accomplished” – had reportedly focused on attacking terror groups such as ISIS and is thought to have tipped the balance of power in Assad’s favour.
The departure of the controversial dictator is said to be a “red line” for Western governments attempting to broker an end to the country’s six-year civil war.
Putin’s surprise move comes as fresh peace talks begin in Geneva – but defence experts have warned much of Russia’s vast military infrastructure in the region will remain.
Its air force will maintain a base at Hmeymim, on the Syrian coast, while a naval facility at nearby Tartus will continue to operate.
Western diplomats are nonetheless said to be cautiously optimistic that Putin will back a settlement that sees Assad’s 16-year reign come to an end.
One said: “The Russians know that he’s a destabilising force.
“If there’s going to be a peaceful transition, he ain’t staying.”