Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he would start pulling his armed forces out of Syria, five months after he ordered a military intervention that turned the tide of the war in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled,” Putin said at a Kremlin meeting with his defence and foreign ministers at which he announced the withdrawal, starting on Tuesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned Assad to inform him of the Russian decision, but Peskov said the two leaders had not discussed Assad’s future – the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.
The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks between the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
Putin ordered an intensification of Russia’s diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Syria, which has dragged on for five years, killed thousands of people and displaced millions, many of them seeking refuge in Europe.
But the Russian leader signalled Moscow would keep a military presence: he did not give a deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said Russian forces would stay on at the port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia province, from which Russia has launched most of its air strikes.
Questions remained about the practical implications of Putin’s announcement. It was not clear if Russian air strikes would stop. Russia will retain the capability to launch them, from the Latakia base.
Through its intervention in Syria, Putin has restored Russia’s status as a major international player capable of exerting its influence far from its borders, and forced the United States to reckon with Moscow’s interests.
Russia’s intervention halted a rebel advance on Assad’s stronghold in Latakia just as the collapse of his forces seemed imminent. They gained time to regroup and then retake ground from the opposition.
But there was a recognition in Moscow that pressing ahead with the military operation would produce diminishing returns. Russian officials have said it is unrealistic to try to restore Assad’s control over all of Syria and the time had come to negotiate a peace.
The campaign in Syria was Russia’s biggest combat mission outside the former Soviet Union since the Red Army’s occupation of Afghanistan.
It weighed on an already fragile Russian economy and poisoned relations with Turkey, a major trader partner, after Ankara shot down a Russian fighter jet that was part of the Syria deployment.
Russia’s rouble currency gained by more than 1 percent immediately after news broke of the withdrawal.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said at the Kremlin meeting.
“With the participation of the Russian military … the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects,” Putin said.
“I am therefore ordering the defence minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic.”
By signalling the start of a withdrawal, Russia is likely to soothe relations with the United States, which has accused the Kremlin of inflaming the Syrian conflict and pursuing its own narrow interests.
“I think we did it to show the Americans that we do not have military ambitions and don’t need unnecessary wars,” said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow. “They have been accusing us of all kinds of things and this is a good way of showing them they are wrong.”
Russia has said it was in Syria to fight Islamist terror groups, but a large number of its air strikes were against anti-Assad groups that Washington and its allies designate as moderate opposition groups.
Opposition fighters have alleged that Russia had combat troops on the ground fighting anti-Assad forces. The Kremlin has never acknowledged this, so it was unclear whether such forces would be covered by the withdrawal.
Putin said Russia’s Tartous naval base and Hmeymim air base “will function as they did previously. They must be reliably protected from land, sea and air”.
That continued military presence, and Russia’s role as a major diplomatic and financial backer of Assad, ensures that the Kremlin will maintain powerful leverage over Syria and the progress of peace talks.
Russia is likely to resist demands by the anti-Assad opposition and their Western supporters for the Syrian leader to leave office under the terms of any peace agreement.