The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has abruptly declared that he is withdrawing the majority of Russian troops from Syria, saying the six-month military intervention had largely achieved its objective.
The news on Monday, relayed personally to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in a telephone call from Putin, followed a meeting in the Kremlin with the Russian defence and foreign ministers. He said the pullout, scaling back an intervention that began at the end of September, is due to start on Tuesday.
His move was clearly designed to coincide with the start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and will be seen as a sign that Russia believes it has done enough to protect Assad’s regime from collapse.
Putin said he had ordered his diplomatic staff to step up their efforts to achieve a settlement to end the civil war which has cost at least 250,000 lives and is due to enter its sixth year on Tuesday.
Moscow will, however, maintain a military presence in Syria, and a deadline for complete withdrawal has not yet been announced. Putin said that the existing Russian airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous would continue to operate. The Russian air force has been capable of running 100 sorties a day from the base and would be able quickly to re-equip it if it felt the military balance required it to do so.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said on Monday the intervention had led to the death of 2,000 rebels fighting against the Syrian government and the killing of 17 field commanders. He added that more than 200 oil installations had been attacked, 400 settlements taken and the chief route to supply rebel fighters from Turkey had been cut off.
Russian airstrikes killed 4,408 people including 1,733 civilians between September 2015 and early March 2016, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.