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 defence 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.
"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 defence 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 defence minister, from tomorrow, to start the withdrawal of the main part of our military contingent from the Syrian Arab Republic."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad to inform him of the Russian decision.
Assad said the move was in line with "the continuation of the cessation of hostilities and in accordance with the situation on the ground," a statement from the regime said.
It said Russia also pledged to continue its support for Syria in "combating terrorism."
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.
Russia began its campaign of air strikes in support of the Assad regime on Sept. 30 last year, claiming that they would be targeting the DAESH terrorist group.
However, the majority of Russian air strikes hit positions held by Syria's moderate opposition, particularly in northern Aleppo, allowing regime forces as well as YPG militants to gain ground and cut off a vital supply route.
The Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran class all opposition groups that took up arms in response to a violent crackdown by the army on pro-democracy protests in 2011 as "terrorists."
Syria's main opposition, however, welcomed the Russian announcement, saying a serious withdrawal would put pressure on Syrian authorities and give peace talks a positive impetus.
"If there is seriousness in implementing the withdrawal, it will give the talks a positive push," said Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the opposition High Negotiations Committee.
"If this is a serious step it will form a major element of pressure on the regime, because the Russian support prolonged the regime. Matters will change significantly as a result of that."
UN meditator for Syria Staffan de Mistura said on Monday following his meeting with representatives from the Assad regime that preparatory ideas were exchanged in the initial peace talks and a further meeting scheduled for Wednesday would focus on core issues.
The Assad regime submitted a document titled "Basic Elements of a Political Solution" to the UN meditator, Bashar Ja'afari, the head of the regime's delegation told reporters after the opening session of the peace talks. Ja'afari said that he had had a positive and constructive meeting with the meditator.
When Mistura was asked about miscommunication between the regime and the opposition, he said that negotiations and peace talks always begin with strong or rhetorical statements.
The talks are the first to be held in more than two years and come amid an unprecedented cessation in hostilities sponsored by the Washington and Moscow, which has been accepted by the Assad regime and most mainstream opposition groups.
The cessation has sharply reduced the fighting over the past two weeks, giving rise to hope that this diplomatic initiative will succeed where all previous efforts failed. The cessation was agreed after de Mistura called off a previous attempt to convene talks last month.
All sides attending the talks have committed to a political transition that will follow the war, but Assad and his opponents disagree fundamentally on what that means, including whether the president must leave power.
The first round of talks will end around March 24, followed by a break of 7-10 days, then a second round of at least two weeks before another recess and a third round.
At least 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war started five years ago, according to the UN. But other estimates place the death toll at 470,000.