MOSCOW/GENEVA President Vladimir Putin said on Monday "the main part" of Russian armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, and instructed his diplomats to step up the push for peace as U.N.-mediated talks resumed in Geneva on ending the five-year war.
Syria announced President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the "reduction" of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin. Western diplomats urged caution and the anti-Assad opposition expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying "nobody knows what is in Putin's mind".
Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad's favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
Putin's announcement - made without any advance warning to the United States - dropped out of the blue.
At a meeting with his defence and foreign ministers, Putin said Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province.
In Geneva, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura warned the warring parties there was no "Plan B" other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a "clear roadmap" for Syria failed to make progress.
Putin said at the Kremlin meeting he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of "the main part of our military contingent" from the country.
"The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process," he 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, Syrian armed forces "have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism", he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad's future - the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.
The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.
Moscow gave Washington no advance warning of Putin's announcement, two U.S. officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they added that they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia's military for the withdrawal.
In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence after it had helped the Syrian army to make military gains. However, a statement from the presidency added that Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in "confronting terrorism".
Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists.
Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted cautiously to Putin's comments.
"I don't understand the Russian announcement, it's a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us," Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the country's northwest, told Reuters.
Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. "Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go," he said.
A European diplomat was also sceptical. "It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that," said the diplomat.
"However, I say potentially because we've seen before with Russia that what's promised isn't always what happens."
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MOMENT OF TRUTH
The Geneva 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 Assad's government and many of his foes.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. "Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained," he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
However, he added: "Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria."
Speaking before Putin's announcement, de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.
The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring 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".
In a sign of how wide the rift 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 U.N. envoy said.
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.
Several ceasefires and peace talks have been attempted since the conflict, which has killed 250,000 people, broke out five years ago this week.
Hundreds of U.N. monitors were deployed to observe a ceasefire in Syria in 2012, but pulled out after fighting resumed. Peace talks in Geneva two years ago collapsed after making no progress.
De Mistura said that if he saw no willingness to negotiate in this latest search for a political agreement, he would hand the issue "back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA ... and to the Security Council".
The reduction in fighting has allowed aid to be brought to besieged areas, though the opposition says the deliveries to rebel-held territory fall well short of needs.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Arshad Mohammed, Michelle Nichols, Tom Miles, Tom Perry and Stephanie Nebehay; writing by Dominic Evans and David Stamp; editing by Peter Millership)
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