Russia will begin a withdrawal of troops from Syria beginning Tuesday — the fifth anniversary of the country's bloody civil war — in an effort to bolster peace talks that resumed Monday, President Vladimir Putin said.
Putin's surprise announcement came amid encouraging signs that a partial ceasefire adopted on Feb. 27 has led to the first significant drop in violence in the war-torn country.
Russia's military won't withdraw entirely from Syria, however. The Russian airbase in the province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous will continue to operate, Russia's TASS news agency said.
It is not clear what impact his announcement will have on an air campaign that Russia has been waging in Syria against forces that oppose the regime of President
Bashar al-Assad. Since Russia stepped up military action in support of the Assad, a long-time ally, the regime's forces have achieved a series of victories against rebel groups, including some backed by the United States.
"I think that the tasks set to the defense ministry are generally fulfilled. That is why I order to begin withdrawal of most of our military group from Syria starting from tomorrow," Putin said Monday at a meeting with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to TASS.
The Obama administration reacted warily to the announcement. “It’s hard for me to assess what kind of impact this will have on the talks,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “We’ll have to see just what exactly Russia's intentions are.”
In Geneva, negotiators gathered for a new round of peace talks, but the multiple combatants remain deeply divided and appear no closer to reaching a political compromise than during previous unsuccessful talks.
The main divide is over the fate of Assad. A coalition that includes the United States, Turkey and
Saudi Arabia say he has used brutal tactics against his own people and should step aside so that new elections can be held. But Russia and Iran remain steadfast supporters of Assad.
"I don’t think there is a basis yet for a political agreement," said Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Negotiators also sounded cautious.
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, said the resumption of negotiations in Geneva was a “moment of truth” and that the “only Plan B available is return to war.”
"If during these talks and in the next rounds we will see no notice of any willingness to negotiate ... we will bring the issue back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA ... and to the Security Council," he said, according to Reuters.
De Mistura said the first round of talks will end around March 24, followed by a break of seven to 10 days. A second round will last at least two weeks, followed by another break and then a third round.
“By then we believe we should have at least a clear road map. I’m not saying agreement, but a clear road map because that’s what Syria is expecting from all of us,” de Mistura said, according to Reuters.