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Putin Orders The Start Of Russian Troop Withdrawal From Syria

Russian bombers parked at Hmeimim air base in Syria on March 4. Since the cease-fire began in late February, the warplanes have mostly stayed on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday he has ordered the withdrawal of the majority of Russian troops from Syria. The pullout, which he said was coordinated with Syrian President Bashar Assad, is slated to begin Tuesday.

Speaking in a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin said the objective of Russia's intervention — disrupting ISIS and other terror groups — had "been fulfilled," and had laid the groundwork for more intense peace talks.

"I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled," Putin said, according to the Guardian. "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."

Russia has long been a supporter of Assad's regime. Critics of Russia's presence in the country say Russian troops were involved in fighting the Syrian opposition groups, not just terrorists.

Putin said that Russia's Hmeimim air base and its Mediterranean naval base would continue to operate normally.

President Obama spoke to Putin on Monday afternoon, the White House said in a statement. They discussed Putin's announcement and the "next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities with the goal of advancing the political negotiations on resolution of the conflict."

The statement said Obama "welcomed the much-needed reduction in violence since the beginning of the cessation, but stressed that continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining" the peace process.

Other U.S. officials are tempering their reactions to the announcement, according to Reuters, saying they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia's military for the withdrawal.

Putin's announcement comes as a Russian and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began last month has largely held, though the Syrian government and the opposition have each cited violations by the other side. ISIS and the al-Qaida branch operating in Syria are not part of the cease-fire agreement.

The withdrawal also comes amid peace talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the 5-year-old Syrian conflict.

Putin said Monday's move would send a "good signal" to the parties to the conflict, help raise trust and help serve as a stimulus for Syria's political talks, the Associated Press reports.

The talks are expected to focus on a political transition in Syria, which has been a major sticking point for the various parties. Russia and the Syrian regime have been adamant about keeping Assad in power, while the U.S. and Syrian opposition groups demand a new government.

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