Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, as new U.N.-mediated peace talks on Syria began in Geneva.
Russian state media quoted Putin Monday as telling Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the tasks assigned to the defense ministry in Syria have been fulfilled.
“Therefore, I am issuing an order to, starting tomorrow, begin the withdrawal of the bulk of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin told the ministers.
The Kremlin’s website quoted Putin as telling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a phone conversation that he would withdraw the “main part” of the Russian air force contingent operating in Syria.
In Damascus, the office of Syria’s presidency said Assad agreed to the move, but added that Russia had promised that its air force contingent will not leave the country altogether.
Russia’s announcement comes as Syrian peace talks, sponsored by Russia and the Untied States, began Monday in Geneva, the first talks in more than two years. U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura warned that if the talks fail, “the only plan B available is return to war.”
The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama called Putin Monday to discuss Russia’s announcement of a withdrawal, and to talk about how to advance the political negotiations for Syria.
A U.S. official tells VOA that so far there is “no indication” Russian forces are getting ready to pull out of Syria. “There have been no signals of retrograde or withdrawal,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The official added that while there had been no significant recent additions to the Russian force deployed in Syria, so-called “sustainment operations” – the influx of supplies needed to maintain its current force posture – had been continuing.
The Kremlin’s website quoted Putin as saying Russia would maintain a “post” for supporting flights of aircraft involved in monitoring compliance with the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said Monday that Russia is making this move to withdraw its forces from Syria because “we are in the political mode now, in the cessation of hostilities mode.” He said, “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve [a] political settlement in Syria.”
He said “Our forces have operated very effectively. Our military presence will continue to be there; it will be directed mostly at making sure the cease-fire, cessation of hostilities is maintained.”
Syrian opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat cautiously welcomed Putin’s move. “We have to be sure about the nature of this decision and what it means. If there is a decision to pull troops, then this is positive. We have to see that translated on the ground and whether it’s a decision to withdraw troops or to reduce the number of warplanes in Syria,” he said.
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.