“I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled,” Putin said at a Kremlin meeting with his defense 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. 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 achieve a peace deal to end the civil war in Syria, that has dragged on for five years, killed thousands of people and displaced millions, many of them seeking refuge in Europe.
But the Russian leader signaled 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 base in Latakia province.
Through its intervention in Syria, Putin has restored Russia 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.
But there was also a recognition in Moscow that pressing ahead any further 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 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 defense minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic.”
By signaling the start of a withdrawal, Russia is likely to soothe tense 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 part of its air strikes were on anti-Assad groups which 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, but the Kremlin has never acknowledged this and so it was unclear if such forces would be covered by the withdrawal.
Putin said the naval base at Tartous and the Hmeymim air base “will function as they did previously. They must be reliably protected from land, sea and air”.