In a surprise announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered the withdrawal of most Russian troops from Syria beginning Tuesday, less than six months after Moscow's war planes began bombarding forces arrayed against the Syrian government.
Putin described the move in a televised meeting as a bid to expedite the Syrian peace process. A new round of peace talks began Monday in Geneva, backed by both Moscow and the United States.
Putin gave no timetable for the pullout, other than saying it would begin Tuesday. Russia reportedly has some 4,000 military personnel in Syria.
"We have paved the way for the peace process," Putin said on Russian television during a meeting in Moscow in which he was flanked by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The withdrawal announcement comes as Syria nears the fifth anniversary of the conflict, which began in March 2011, morphing from street protests and a subsequent government crackdown to a brutal guerrilla campaign across much of the country. A fragile "cessation of hostilities" has been in effect in Syria since Feb. 27, leading to a major reduction in violence, according to U.S. and Russian officials. Both nations backed the cease-fire.
The Russian president lauded the military campaign in Syria, saying the effort had allowed President Bashar Assad's government to retake hundreds of towns and villages and resulted in the destruction of opposition arms depots and oil routes, among other accomplishments.
Putin expressed confidence that the Syrian military and its allies — who served as boots on the ground as Russian war planes attacked from the skies — would be able to hold and consolidate gains made in recent months.
At this point, the U.S. doesn't expect the Russian military will depart Syria in the coming months, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Putin has ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria to pressure Assad to step aside and allow another government friendly to Moscow to come to power. Russia's departure from Syria would likely result in the loss of territorial gains by Assad's forces over the last six months.
Washington officials have harshly criticized Russia's involvement in the Syria war. President Obama has called for Assad to step down and has provided money and arms to rebels fighting to oust the Syrian leader.
But the Russian intervention has strengthened Assad's hold on the country. At least 60% of Syrians still in the country reside in government-controlled areas, according to various estimates, including Damascus, the capital; Homs; western Aleppo; and the Mediterranean coastal area.
The Russian deployment to Syria also became a showcase for some of Moscow's latest military hardware, from fighter jets to cruise missiles to tanks.
The major Russian military installations in Syria — an air base in northwest Latakia province and a naval base in the port city of Tartous — would continue operating, Tass reported. It was unclear if Russian airstrikes would continue.
Russia has conducted thousands of airstrikes since it began its Syrian air campaign Sept. 30. Russia said it was striking "terrorists," but U.S. officials said the Russian warplanes were also hitting so-called "moderate" rebels backed by Washington and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Russia insisted that its strikes were exclusively against terrorist groups such as Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, and Islamic State, the breakaway Al Qaeda faction that controls territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. But rebels backed by the United States and its allies often cooperate on the Syrian battlefield with Al Qaeda-style factions like as Nusra Front.
The pace of Russian airstrikes has slowed considerably since the Feb. 27 cease-fire. Since then, violence in the country has declined by as much as 90%, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during the weekend.
Just before the cease-fire was proclaimed, pro-government Syrian forces seemed poised to encircle the northern city of Aleppo, which has been divided between government and rebel control for almost four years. Russian air power also helped choke off rebel supply routes from neighboring Turkey, a fact that drew protests from Turkey, a major backer of rebel factions in Syria.
In November, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane over the Syrian-Turkish border area, drawing angry condemnations from Moscow. Relations between Turkey, a NATO member, and Russia have been on the decline ever since. Russia has accused Turkey of aiding "terrorist" groups, including Islamic State, an allegation denied by Ankara.
Syrian state news agency SANA said that the withdrawal was decided by Putin and Assad during a phone call.
The two sides, SANA reported, agreed to "lower [the number] of Russian Air Force in Syria in [a way] that complements the current field stage and the continuation of the cessation of hostilities."
The Syrian government has extended so-called reconciliation deals to thousands of former rebels, affording them the opportunity to return to civilian life in state-held areas with amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms or joining pro-government forces. The pace of reconciliation deals has accelerated in recent months, the government says.
Critics insist, however, that the reconciliation deals are little more than forced surrender and are taken to prevent starvation in opposition areas caused by the government's use of siege tactics.
Among the many foreign Islamist militants in Syria are several thousand Russian citizens, Moscow says. Russia said part of its motivation in Syria was to insure that Russian nationals radicalized in Syria did not return home to promote violence and instability on Russian soil.
Still, the Russian air campaign drew withering criticism from the Obama administration, which said Moscow's move was impeding process toward peace in Syria. At one point, Obama said Russia risked getting bogged down in a "quagmire" in Syria.
Nonetheless, Russia has been a major partner with the United States in trying to promote a peace process in Syria.
The Syrian conflict has helped destabilize the region and prompted more than 4 million Syrians to flee the country, contributing to a refugee crisis in Europe.
"Nobody knows what is in #Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in our country in the first place," Salim Muslet, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition umbrella group at the peace talks in Geneva, said on the group's Twitter page.
Meanwhile, opposition activists reported that impromptu celebrations had broken out across opposition-held areas of the country after the news of Russia's withdrawal announcement.
Analysts noted that Russia could decide to bolster forces in Syria anew if anti-government forces posed a renewed threat to Damascus.
"Russia keeps track of the situation in Syria, and the Russian president can make a decision to beef up our [military grouping] there," Viktor Ozerov, a Federation Council official on defense and security told RIA Novosti news agency.
Times staff writer McDonnell and special correspondent Bulos reported from Beirut and special correspondent Mirovalev from Moscow. Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.