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.
Western diplomatic sources were both sceptical and startled by Putin’s unexpected and mercurial move. “We will have to wait and see what this represents. It is Putin. He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialised,” a diplomat at the talks in Geneva told the Guardian.
Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke on the phone on Monday, with the Kremlin saying the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict. The White House said Obama welcomed the reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities but “underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria.”
Syrian activists and rights groups have accused the Russian campaign of indiscriminate attacks and causing enormous civilian casualties, something Russian officials have repeatedly denied. Moscow has also come under fire for targeting moderate opposition groups, while claiming to be fighting Islamic State.
The Syrian opposition delegation had been given no notice of Putin’s announcement but said it hoped it was a potential signal that the Russian president was demonstrating that he, and not Assad, would decide any endgame in Syria.
“If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push,” said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the rebel high negotiations committee. “If this is a serious step, it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that.”
The talks are likely to be deadlocked on the extent to which Assad will be allowed to remain in power during any political transition and after any fresh UN-supervised presidential elections due in 18 months.
In a statement announcing the withdrawal, the Kremlin said Putin and Assad agreed that the actions of Russia’s air force in Syria had allowed them to “profoundly reverse the situation” in connection to fighting terrorists in the region, having “disorganised militants’ infrastructure and inflicted fundamental damage upon them”.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin added. “I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. 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.”
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 Hmeymim 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.
Given that Russia-backed separatists launched one of their biggest offensives in Ukraine in February 2015, just as Putin joined other world leaders in negotiating a ceasefire, there will undoubtedly be scepticism over whether the announcement of the end of the Syrian mission can be taken at face value. However, Russia’s overarching goal of securing a lead seat at the table over the fate of Syria has clearly been achieved. A withdrawal will prevent the inevitable “mission creep” that appeared to be on the cards.
“Essentially, they’ve achieved their goals,” said Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and currently based in Moscow. “They’ve stabilised the regime, turned momentum round on the battlefield so the regime has the upper hand, and now we’ve got a ceasefire and political talks.”
As the talks opened in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, reminded negotiators that a whole generation of Syrian children – more than 3.5 million under the age of five – had never experienced anything but war. De Mistura will brief the UN security council meeting in New York in a closed session from Geneva and his aides were making no initial response to the Russian move.
Western governments, along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have repeatedly accused Putin of deploying his air force not to bomb Isis targets but rebel forces including the moderate Free Syrian army, often hitting schools and hospitals. Earlier this month, Nato’s military commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, accused Putin of “deliberately weaponising” the refugee crisis from Syria in an attempt to overwhelm Europe.
Muslat, meanwhile, has denied the Russian intervention has seriously weakened the opposition’s negotiating hand. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “We are closer to a solution now more than ever. We have been patient and we hope to see something in the coming few days, at least some light at the end of the tunnel that says at this, or that, time there will be something for the Syrians.
“Before, we saw all doors closed; now we see some doors open. We want to see an end to the nightmare. We want to see it today and before tomorrow. The future of Syria should be decided here and decided very soon.”
He claimed the shaky two-week ceasefire and the start of humanitarian convoys was changing the atmosphere inside Syria. But in a sign of how perilous the talks are likely to become, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, set out the government’s determination to keep Assad’s future out of the talks. “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency … Bashar al-Assad is a red line.”
Muslat countered: “The political transition process has to be without Assad. You do not want to keep a murderer who has killed half a million people and destroyed a country. There is no place for Assad in Syria. He is not acceptable to the Syrian people.”
Significantly, he added that it might be possible for Assad to remain for a period if there was a clear guarantee that he would stand down. “At the least, we have to see something that Assad will go and we do not want to hear from Russia that nobody should discuss the future of Assad.”
He stressed Assad “could not be a member of any transitional governing body”.