Putin orders surprise Russian withdrawal from Syria
President claims the move will help Assad's peace talks with rebels
Vladimir Putin has abruptly ordered the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria, in an unexpected and potentially significant breakthrough in the effort to end Syria's five-year-old civil war.
The Russian president made the shock announcement at a meeting of government minsters and said his country's forces should begin leaving Syria as early as today.
The decision appeared to catch the US and other western countries off guard and came as negotiators from the Syrian regime and opposition forces gathered for the start of peace talks in Geneva.
However, analysts warned that Mr Putin's announcement would mean little if it did not lead to an end to Russian airstrikes against the opponents of Bashar al-Assad and on civilian areas.
Russia began bombing late last year with the stated aim of destroying "terrorist" groups inside of Syria - but in reality it focused its fire on propping up Mr Assad's embattled forces.
The Kremlin said Russia had achieved "a real turnabout in the fight against the terrorists in Syria", even though the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) still controls a third of the country.
Mr Putin said he believed Russia's mission in Syria had now been "largely fulfilled" and he phoned Mr Assad to inform him that his troops were withdrawing.
"The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process," Mr Putin said. "I believe the task set before the Ministry of Defence and armed forces has been largely fulfilled, so I am instructing the minister of defence to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from Syria."
He also ordered Russia to "intensify" its efforts to broker a peace deal between the Assad regime and opposition groups.
Mr Putin did not give a timeline for the withdrawal and said Russian troops would retain control of the port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim airbase in Syria's Latakia province.
The West and human rights groups have accused Russia of killing hundreds of civilians in its air raids, including the bombing of several hospitals.
The White House offered a cautious response to Mr Putin's announcement, saying it would wait "to see exactly what Russia's intentions are".
The US said it had received no warning of the move and officials said there were as yet no indications on the ground that Russian forces were preparing to withdraw.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who restarted peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva yesterday, warned before the announcement that the only alternative to the negotiations was a return to war. He described political transition in the country as "the mother of all issues".
The Russian and US-brokered ceasefire that began on February 27 has largely held, but both the Syrian government and its foes have accused one another of violations. Both Isil and al-Qa'ida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, are excluded from the ceasefire.
Mr Putin said the move would send a "good signal" to the parties to the conflict, help raise trust and serve as a stimulus for peace talks.
Moments before meeting with a Syrian government envoy, in Geneva, Mr 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 today.
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.
Meanwhile, the UN has released new figures showing that the Syrian civil war has turned 2.4 million children into refugees.
"Twice as many people now live under siege or in hard-to-reach areas, compared with 2013," Unicef said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)