Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered his military to start the withdrawal of the main part of Russia's forces from Syria, saying that the Russian military intervention had largely achieved its objectives.
Putin, at a meeting in the Kremlin with his defense and foreign ministers, said the pullout should start from Tuesday. He also ordered that Russia intensify its role in the peace process to end the conflict in Syria.
But the Russian leader signaled Moscow would keep a military presence: he did not give a deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said Russian forces would stay on at the port of Tartous and at the Hmeymim airbase in Syria's Latakia province.
Syria's state news agency quoted President Bashar Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent from Syria but won't leave the country altogether.
State TV also quoted Assad saying Russia will decrease its presence to levels "in line with the situation on the ground and the continuation of the cessation of hostilities."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin telephoned Assad to inform him of the Russian decision. The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks between the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
"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 defense 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," Putin said.
"I am therefore ordering the defense minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic."
No Plan B
A UN.mediator said on Monday there was no "Plan B" other than a resumption of conflict in the Syrian war if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a "clear roadmap" for Syria fail to make progress.
Syria faces a moment of truth, Staffan de Mistura said when he opened talks to end a five-year war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.
The talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month's "cessation of hostilities", sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by President Bashar Assad's government and many of his foes.
But the limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. Both sides have accused each other of multiple violations, and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.
The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad's opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table.
The head of the government delegation, Bashar Ja'afari, described his first meeting with de Mistura on Monday as positive and constructive, adding he submitted a document entitled "Basic Elements for a Political Solution".
De Mistura said some ideas had been floated in a meeting he described as a preparatory session, ahead of a further meeting on Wednesday which would focus on core issues. Asked about the gulf between the two teams, he said it was the nature of negotiations that both sides start off with tough positions.
In a sign of how wide that gulf is, de Mistura is meeting the two sides separately - at least initially.
The talks must focus on political transition, which is the "mother of all issues", the UN envoy said before his talks with Ja'afari. Separate groups would keep tackling humanitarian issues and the cessation of hostilities.
"As far as I know, the only Plan B available is return to war, and to even worse war than we had so far," he said.