Putin: Russian forces to withdraw from Syria

The Kremlin said Putin and Assad agreed on the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria in a phone call

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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 al-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.”

The Kremlin also said Putin and Syria leader Bashar al-Assad agreed on the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria in a phone call.

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 U.S.-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.

“The task that was set before our defence ministry and armed forces has as a whole been completed and so I order the defence ministry to from tomorrow start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingents from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in televised comments.

Putin also asked his foreign ministry to intensify Russia’s role in brokering a peace deal in Syria.

The Russian leader said Moscow’s work in the country had created the necessary conditions for the peace process.
The Russian ambassador to the United Nations said Monday that Russia’s decision to begin withdrawing from Syria will help Moscow’s push to reach a political settlement.

“Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria,” Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria.

“We are in the political mode now, in the cessation of hostilities mode.”

Churkin, however, declined to specify whether Moscow would halt all air strikes, saying instead that the forces staying behind will enforce the ceasefire that began in late February.

The envoy also said he would inform the Security Council on Russia’s withdrawal plan during a closed-door meeting called to hear UN envoy Staffan de Mistura report on the latest round of talks.

Syrian presidency

Meanwhile, the Syrian presidency on Monday denied suggestions that Russia’s announcement that its forces would start pulling out of Syria reflected a difference between the two countries, saying the step was coordinated and had been studied for some time.

A statement from the presidency said it had received many questions about the announcement, and some reports had spread interpretations “that what happened reflects a Syrian-Russian difference that led to the decision to reduce forces.”

The Syrian presidency “confirms that the whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time,” the statement said.

Syrian opposition welcomes move

Syria’s opposition on Monday, meanwhile, welcomed Russia’s announcement, saying a serious withdrawal would put pressure on Syrian authorities and give peace talks a positive impetus.

“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the rebel High Negotiations Committee.

“If this is a serious step it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that.”

Meanwhile, Mohamad Alloush, head of the politburo of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group and chief negotiator for the opposition at the talks in Switzerland, said: “I welcome the Russian withdrawal if it is genuine and not just a manoeuver.”

But, in a WhatsApp message from Geneva he added: “There are no indications of it being implemented.”

Putin made the announcement five months after he ordered a military intervention that turned the tide of the war in favor of Assad.

The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks between the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia’s military for the withdrawal.

Russia not attacking moderate rebels?

Meanwhile, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper on Monday that Russian forces have practically stopped attacking moderate Syrian rebels.

Le Drian’s comment were made before Putin made the announcement.

“The Russians...had practically stopped hitting moderate insurgents,” Le Drian said, adding that they were carrying out attacks on ISIS militants.

(With Reuters, AFP)

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