Russian President Vladamir Putin announced on Monday that Moscow would begin to withdraw the “main part” of its forces from Syria.
Putin said forces would begin withdrawing on Tuesday. “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said. “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled,” he said.
In downplaying the move, Damascus said that it had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Washington appeared to be caught off guard with the news, with U.S. officials saying that Moscow did not provide advance warning of President Putin’s announcement.
Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict last September and was largely credited for bolstering Assad’s forces and turning the tide against the rebels, some supported by the United States and the Arab Gulf countries.
Meanwhile, peace talks again kicked off in Geneva on Monday, with the regime and the opposition in attendance. The talks follow February’s “cessation of hostilities”, that allowed the first reduction in daily violence in Syria since the conflict began in 2011. The agreement reached last month was reached between the United States and Russia and was agreed upon by the Assad government and several rebel groups. It did not include the Islamic State group or the al Qaeda offshoot in the county, al Nusra Front.
Since it began nearly five years ago, at least 250,000 people have been killed as the conflict deepened into a civil war between the regime and the rebels, with the Islamic State taking advantage of the vacuum and chaos to set up its de-facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqaa. Amid the violence, millions of Syrians have also been internally displaced or have fled to neighboring countries.