MOSCOW — Russia will begin withdrawing troops from Syria beginning Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said Monday.
The Russian news agency Tass quoted Putin as saying the move should aid talks aimed at ending the brutal civil war that has torn Syria apart for five years. Peace talks resumed Monday amid encouraging signs that a partial cease-fire agreement has led to the first significant drop in violence.
"I think that the tasks set to the Defense Ministry are generally fulfilled. That is why I order to begin withdrawal of most of our military group from Syria starting from tomorrow," Putin said Monday at a meeting with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The Syrian presidency said Moscow will keep up its support for the regime's "anti-terrorist" battle.
"The Syrian and Russian parties agreed in a telephone call between Presidents Bashar al-Assad and [Russia's] Vladimir Putin to reduce the number of Russian Air Force personnel in Syria," the president's office said on its Facebook page.
"The Russian side said it will continue to support Syria in its battle against terrorism," it said.
The multiple combatants, however, remain deeply divided and appear no closer to reaching a political compromise than they were during previous unsuccessful talks.
The main divide is over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A coalition that includes the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia say he has used brutal tactics against his own people and should step aside so that new elections can be held. But Russia and Iran remain steadfast supporters of Assad and have lent military support against rebel groups to help him stay in power.
"I don’t think there is a basis yet for a political agreement," said Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria.
"We are in the political mode now, in the cessation of hostilities mode."
Negotiators also sounded cautious. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, said the resumption of negotiations in Geneva was a “moment of truth” and that the “only Plan B available is return to war.”
"If during these talks and in the next rounds we will see no notice of any willingness to negotiate ... we will bring the issue back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA ... and to the Security Council," he said, according to Reuters.
De Mistura said the first round of talks will end around March 24, followed by a break of seven to 10 days. A second round will last at least two weeks, followed by another break and then a third round.
“By then we believe we should have at least a clear road map. I’m not saying agreement, but a clear road map because that’s what Syria is expecting from all of us,” de Mistura said, according to Reuters.
De Mistura suspended the first round of talks more than a month ago, citing continued violence and lack of humanitarian relief on the ground.
The partial ceasefire has provided hope on both those fronts. He said the "cessation of hostilities" introduced on Feb. 27 has largely held, allowing for some humanitarian aid to be delivered to beleaguered areas.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday also said he was encouraged by the "very significant reduction in violence, maybe 80, 90%" but remained concerned by allegations of violations allegedly committed by the Assad regime.
"The cessation of hostilities in our judgment is an ongoing process, and the Russians and Iranians ... (must) do their part to keep the Assad regime adhering to the agreement," Kerry said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia.
The agreement did not include an end to bombings of terror groups, the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Both Russians and the United States continue to bomb Islamic State forces.
"The war doesn't stop" under the agreement, Tabler said. "It slows down."
The Obama administration has hoped that even a limited ceasefire might lead to a broader political agreement. So far positions seem to have only hardened over time.
Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters in Geneva on Sunday that the government held positive discussions with de Mistura. However he added: "We do not know what issues we will address or the agenda, which we still have not agreed on."
Salem al-Meslet, a spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella group of the Syrian opposition, said it would stick with the talks, but added: "There will be no role within this (transitional) body for those who have committed crimes" or for Assad, AFP reported.
The conflict has killed nearly 500,000 people and created about 5 million refugees, fueling the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
AFP contributed to this report.