Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the withdrawal of Russia's military task force from Syria starting from March 15, five and a half months after Moscow launched its offensive against rebel groups in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"I think that the tasks given to the defence ministry have generally been fulfilled. That is why I ordered the start of the withdrawal of most of our military group from Syria from tomorrow," Putin said on March 14 at a meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, TASS reported.
"The efficient work of our military has created conditions for the start of a peace process," the president said. "With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian troops and patriotic forces in Syria have managed to turn the tide in fight against international terrorism and take the initiative in practically all directions."
"I hope today's decision will be a good signal for all conflicting parties. I hope it will sizably increase trust of all participants in the process," the president said, adding that he had instructed Lavrov to boost Russia's role in the peace process.
Russian bases in Tartus and Khmeimim will continue are to continue operating as usual, and Russian servicemen who stay in Syria will be engaged in monitoring the ceasefire regime, according to Putin.
Strong words abroad
However, Putin's critics abroad later stressed that Russia's announced withdrawal is nothing to praise.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the West should not give Moscow "any credit" for withdrawing from Syria, citing the misery visited by Russian bombing on the civilian population.
"Somebody goes in to another country, starts bombing civilian populations, destroying hospitals and schools," Hammond told the House of Commons in London. "If they decide they have done enough, let's not give them too much praise. It's a bit like 'did he stop beating his wife'," he added. "The fact they are there in the first place is something we have to continually protest about."
At the request of Damascus, Russia began an aerial campaign against forces opposed to the Syrian government on September 30, deploying more than 50 warplanes and helicopters in the Middle Eastern country.
Russia maintains that it is the only foreign country to operate in Syria with a legitimate mandate. But Western countries led by the US condemned what they said was a campaign aimed mainly at Assad's opponents while failing to target the Islamic State forces in Syri. Washington also strongly condemned the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons in populated areas and causing high civilian casualties.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had fully discussed and coordinated the withdrawal decision together with Assad.
"The Syrian leader said he was ready to start a political process in the country as soon as possible," Peskov said. "[Putin and Assad] expressed hope that the full-scale UN-mediated talks between the Syrian government and opposition representatives in Geneva would produce concrete results."
A month after the "proximity talks" were suspended amid an upsurge in violence in Syria, the conflicting sides met again in Geneva on March 14 to resume negotiations towards a permanent settlement.
The talks had restarted as a "fragile" ceasefire had largely held since February 27 and humanitarian aid deliveries had resumed in recent weeks, UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said.
bne IntelliNews columnist Professor Mark Galleotti pointed out in a tweet that Russia will maintain its naval and airforce bases and so keep its ability for action in Syria and so keep its leverage in the region.