MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial pullout of the Russian military from Syria, voicing hope that the move will contribute to the success of Syria peace talks that began Monday.
Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with Russia’s foreign and defense ministries, the president said the Russian air campaign has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military to turn the tide of war and helped create conditions for peace talks.
“With the tasks set before the Defense Ministry and the military largely fulfilled, I’m ordering the Defense Minister to start the pullout of the main part of our group of forces in Syria, beginning tomorrow,” Putin said.
He didn’t specify how many planes and troops should be withdrawn. He emphasized that the Russian airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous will continue to operate. The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has not been revealed.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on Monday, said he had no comment on Putin’s announcement when contacted by The Associated Press.
Earlier in the day, he warned that the only alternative to the negotiations is a return to war, and described political transition in the country as “the mother of all issues.”
The Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, but both the Syrian government and its foes have accused one another of violations. The Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are excluded from the cease-fire.
Putin said Monday’s move would send a “good signal” to the parties to the conflict, help raise trust and help serve as a stimulus for Syria’s political talks. The Kremlin said the president coordinated the move with Assad.
Puttin added that the Russian troops will continue to oversee the observance of the Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire.
Moments before meeting with a Syrian government envoy, in Geneva, de Mistura laid out both high stakes and low expectations for what is shaping up as the most promising initiative in years to end the conflict that moves into its sixth year on Tuesday. At least a quarter of a million people have been killed and half of Syria’s population has been displaced, flooding Europe with refugees.
The Geneva talks come as the truce helped vastly reduce the bloodshed and allowed the recent resumption of humanitarian aid deliveries to thousands of Syrians in “besieged areas” — zones surrounded by fighters and generally cut off from the outside world.
De Mistura laid out a stark choice for Syrian parties in the talks, saying: “As far as I know, the only plan B available is return to war — and to even worse war than we had so far.”
The two sides are deeply split on Assad’s future. His foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Saturday that any talk of removing Assad during a transitional period sought by the U.N. is “a red line,” and rejected the international call for a presidential election to be held within 18 months — a key demand of the opposition.
But de Mistura, keeping to language laid out in the U.N. Security Council resolution in December that paved the way for the talks, insisted that political change, including a timetable for new elections within 18 months, is the ultimate goal.
“What is the real issue — the mother of all issues? Political transition,” he said.
Assad, however, has announced that parliament elections in Syria will go ahead next month according to schedule. A Syrian official, Hisham al-Shaar, said the elections will be held only in areas under government control and there will be no polling stations in Syrian embassies abroad or in refugee camps.
On Monday, as the election campaign officially kicked off, streets in the capital Damascus were festooned with electoral banners and posters of hundreds of government-approved candidates.
In the so-called proximity talks, the two sides don’t meet face to face, but meet separately with de Mistura and his team, who shuttle back and forth.
The talks began Monday with de Mistura hosting a government delegation led by Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari. Speaking to reporters afterward, Ja’afari called the meeting “positive and constructive” and said the government delegation “submitted ideas and views” for a political solution to the crisis. He said the opposition will meet de Mistura on Tuesday, and his delegation would meet again on Wednesday.
The talks remain precarious.
Ja’afari says his team wants “to negotiate as Syrians under Syrian leadership without foreign intervention and without preconditions,” and said any side that opposed this premise is “trying to sabotage this round.” He was referring to opposition demands from the previous round including an end to bombardment, release of detainees and the lifting of the siege by government troops on rebel-held areas.
De Mistura said that “spoilers will try to upset the talks,” which he described as “a moment of truth.” He suspended the talks only days after they started last month amid an upsurge in violence, notably blistering air strikes by Syrian government and allied Russian forces near Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
“The real peace-makers here are the peace-making powers who wanted these talks — the ISSG and the Security Council members — and hopefully the Syrian sides,” de Mistura said. If there doesn’t appear to be willingness to negotiate during these and future talks, “we will bring the issue back to those who have influence,” he said.
The talks have shaped up as the best, if distant, chance in years to end a war that has created an opening for radical groups including Islamic State and the al-Qaida-backed Nusra Front to gain large swaths of land, and prompted at least 11 million people to leave their homes — many fleeing abroad to places like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as to Europe.