Moscow, Mar 15: Moscow will begin withdrawing its forces from Syria today, ending its controversial bombing campaign, as a new round of UN-backed peace talks seek to end the conflict now in its sixth year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called long-standing ally Bashar al-Assad on Monday to inform him that Moscow will pull out the bulk of its forces from Syria, a move hailed by the United Nations Security Council as a "positive step" for the fraught peace negotiations. But hopes for a breakthrough at the Geneva talks remained remote with both sides locked in a bitter dispute over the future of the Syrian president.
"The task that was set before our defence ministry and armed forces has as a whole been completed and so I order the defence ministry to from tomorrow (Tuesday) start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingents from the Syrian Arab Republic," Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in televised comments.
The withdrawal of the Russian troops -- which began airstrikes in support of the regime in September, sparking condemnation from Western powers -- is expected to put more pressure on Assad to negotiate during the Geneva talks.
As the meeting enters its second day, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was expected to hold his first official meeting with the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), who have repeatedly said that Assad could not be part of Syria's political future.
"The decision just announced today by the Russian president -- that's a positive step," said Angolan Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, who holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month.
"That's what we like to see." The Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also said the Kremlin's move would boost chances of a diplomatic solution to the conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.
The White House said President Barack Obama had spoken to Putin following Russia's surprise withdrawal announcement, and discussed the "next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities".
But US officials offered a more cautious initial assessment of the Kremlin's decision. "At this point, we are going to see how things play out over the next few days," a senior administration official told AFP.
Russia began its airstrikes in support of Assad's forces in September, a move that helped shore up the regime's crumbling forces and allow them to go on the offensive.