President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial pullout of the Russian military from Syria Monday, voicing hope the move will contribute to the success of Syria peace talks.
The start of the negotiations in Geneva offers the Russian president an opportune moment to declare an official end to the five-and-a-half-month Russian air campaign that has allowed the Syrian army to win back some key ground. Halting the military action now would allow Putin to cash in on his gains and pose as a peacemaker.
At the same time, Putin made it clear that Russia will maintain its air base and a naval facility in Syria and keep some troops there. Syria's state news agency also quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent but won't leave the country altogether.
Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with Russia's foreign and defense ministries, Putin said the Russian air campaign has allowed Assad's military to turn the tide of war and helped create conditions for peace talks.
"With the tasks set before the Defense Ministry and the military largely fulfilled, I'm ordering the Defense Minister to start the pullout of the main part of our group of forces in Syria, beginning tomorrow," Putin said.
He didn't specify how many planes and troops should be withdrawn. The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has not been revealed.
Russia has deployed more than 50 jets and helicopters to its Hemeimeem air base, in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, and they have operated at a frenetic pace, each flying several combat sorties on an average day.
State TV quoted Assad as saying that the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured "victories against terrorism and returned security to the country."
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on Monday, said he had no comment on Putin's announcement when contacted by The Associated Press.
Earlier in the day, he warned that the only alternative to the negotiations is a return to war, and described political transition in the country as "the mother of all issues."
The Russian- and US-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, but both the Syrian government and its foes have accused one another of violations. The Islamic State group and Al Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are excluded from the cease-fire.
While Russia said in the past that it would continue its fight against groups considered terrorists by the United Nations, Putin's announcement appears to indicate that Moscow will halt its military action for now.
Putin said Monday's move should help raise trust and serve as a stimulus for Syria's political talks. The Kremlin said the president coordinated the move with Assad, who voiced his readiness to "quickly launch a political process."
"I hope that today's decision will send a good signal to all conflicting parties," Putin said. "I hope it will significantly increase the level of trust among the participants in the Syrian settlement and contribute to solving the Syrian settlement by peaceful means."
Putin added that Russian troops will continue to oversee the observance of the cease-fire.
Moments before meeting with a Syrian government envoy in Geneva, de Mistura laid out both high stakes and low expectations for what is shaping up as the most promising initiative in years to end the conflict that moves into its sixth year on Tuesday. At least a quarter of a million people have been killed and half of Syria's population has been displaced, flooding Europe with refugees.
The truce, however, has helped vastly reduce the bloodshed and allowed the recent resumption of humanitarian aid deliveries to thousands of Syrians in "besieged areas" zones surrounded by fighters and generally cut off from the outside world.
De Mistura laid out a stark choice for Syrian parties in the talks, saying: "As far as I know, the only plan B available is return to war and to even worse war than we had so far."
The two sides are deeply split on Assad's future. His foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Saturday that any talk of removing Assad during a transitional period sought by the UN is "a red line," and rejected the international call for a presidential election to be held within 18 months â a key demand of the opposition.
But de Mistura, keeping to language laid out in the UN Security Council resolution in December that paved the way for the talks, insisted that political change, including a timetable for new elections within 18 months, is the ultimate goal.
"What is the real issue – the mother of all issues? Political transition," he said.
Asked if Putin discussed Assad's political fate in Monday's phone call with the Syrian leader, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it wasn't part of the conversation.
Assad has announced that parliamentary elections in Syria will go ahead next month according to schedule. A Syrian official, Hisham al-Shaar, said the elections will be held only in areas under government control and there will be no polling stations in Syrian embassies abroad or in refugee camps.
On Monday, as the election campaign officially kicked off, streets in the capital Damascus were festooned with electoral banners and posters of hundreds of government-approved candidates.
In the so-called proximity talks in Geneva, the two sides don't meet face to face, but meet separately with de Mistura and his team, who shuttle back and forth.
The talks began Monday with de Mistura hosting a government delegation led by Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari. Speaking to reporters afterward, Ja'afari called the meeting "positive and constructive" and said the government delegation "submitted ideas and views" for a political solution to the crisis. He said the opposition will meet de Mistura on Tuesday, and his delegation would meet again on Wednesday.
The talks have shaped up as the best, if distant, chance in years to end a war that has created an opening for radical groups including Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front to gain large swaths of land, and prompted at least 11 million people to leave their homes â many fleeing abroad to places like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as to Europe.