MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that Russia would begin withdrawing the “main part” of its military from Syria, a surprise potential end to a six-month intervention that bolstered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and dealt a grave blow to Syrian rebels.
The decision came as U.N.- brokered peace talks between the Assad government and rebel representatives got underway in Geneva. The planned Tuesday start of the withdrawal coincides with the five-year anniversary of the beginning of street protests in Syria, an initially peaceful movement that was brutally repressed by Assad forces.
Through it all, Russia has backed Assad. But Monday’s decision may intensify pressure on the Syrian government to strike a deal with rebel groups in Geneva. Talks resumed there Monday after breaking down a month ago because the rebels were suffering such heavy losses in their surrounded stronghold of Aleppo. A shaky cease-fire has quelled fighting in Syria since late February, but Assad’s forces have continued an assault on their rivals.
“I hope that this will considerably increase the level of trust between all parties of the Syrian settlement and will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian issue,” Putin said in a meeting with his top deputies that was broadcast on Russian state television late Monday. In a separate phone call with Assad, Putin said the intervention had “radically changed the situation” on the ground, according to the Kremlin.