Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the “main part” of his military to begin withdrawing from Syria.
“I consider the mission set for the Defense Ministry and the armed forces on the whole has been accomplished,” he said during a meeting at the Kremlin. “I am therefore ordering the Defense Ministry to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military force from the Syrian Arab Republic from tomorrow.”
Putin did not specify how many troops would leave. He said, however, Russia’s Hmeimim airbase and its Mediterranean port at Tartus will continue normal operations.
Numerous violations of a US and Russian brokered ceasefire have occurred since February 27.
On Monday the Russian Defense Ministry said the ceasefire was violated at least 14 times over the last 24 hours in Latakia, Daraa, Damascus and Hama.
The ministry blamed Ahrar al-Sham for a mortar attack on Klyaba Kinsiba and Jabal-Alakaya in the Latakia province.
Ahrar al-Sham is backed by Saudi Arabia. Its goal is to remove al-Assad and establish and Islamic government and impose sharia law in Syria.
The United States and France have warned the government of Bashar al-Assad about responding to attacks by groups that have not signed on to the ceasefire and Secretary of State John Kerry has warned the Syrian government and Russia against “testing boundaries.”
Plan B: A Return to War
The Russian withdrawal follows the start of a new round of peace talks in Geneva to resolve the conflict. The agenda includes UN Security Council resolution 2254 focusing on the formation of a new transitional government, issues of governance, a new constitution and UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.
The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) insists al-Assad will have no part in a new government. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallam said any talk of removing Assad during the transitional period was “a red line.”
Kerry characterized al-Moallam’s remark as “a spoiler” designed to derail peace talks.
Staffan de Mistura, a Swedish-Italian diplomat who is the UN special envoy to Syria, said the alternative to the US and Saudi deal is a return to war.
“As far as I know the only Plan B is a return to war, and a much worse war than before,” he said.