Russian president says soldiers should begin pulling out of country as military intervention has largely achieved its aims.

By The Guardian

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has declared that he is withdrawing the majority of Russian troops from Syria, saying the intervention had largely achieved its objective.

The news, relayed to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, personally in a telephone call, followed a meeting in the Kremlin with Putin’s defence and foreign ministers. He said the pullout, reducing an intervention that began at the end of September, is due to start from Tuesday.

A Western diplomatic source said: “we will have to wait and see what this represents. It is Putin. He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialised”.

Syrian activists and rights groups have accused the Russian campaign of indiscriminate attacks and 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 (Isis).

In a statement the Kremlin said Putin and Assad agreed that the actions of Russia’s air force in Syria have 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 said.

“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,” he added.

“I am therefore ordering the defence minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Moscow will, however, maintain a military presence in Syria, and a deadline for complete withdrawal has not yet been announced. Putin said that the Russian airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous will 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 of it felt the military balance required it to do so.

A statement issued by the Syrian presidency said Assad and Putin agreed the move in a telephone call, saying it was in line with “the continuation of the cessation of hostilities and in accordance with the situation on the ground”.

It said Russia also pledged to continue its support for Syria in “combating terrorism”

Putin’s order came on the day thatSyrian peace talks began in earnest in Geneva, and will be seen as a sign that Russia believes it has done enough to protect Assad’s regime from collapse.

Syrian opposition sources said they had no prior information of Putin’s plan and said they will wait to see if it emerges to be true or a political manoeuvre. Diplomatic sources suggested Putin would be speaking to US president Barack Obama to explain his move, which will give Washington an opportunity to assess how serious the Russian withdrawal is likely to be.

The UN’s special envoy Staffan de Mistura will brief the UN security council meeting in New York in a closed session from Geneva.

Russian air strikes 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.