Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a surprise announcement, said he has ordered his country’s forces to withdraw from Syria starting Tuesday, declaring that the five-month aerial bombardment campaign against Syrian rebels has largely achieved its objectives.

“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,” Mr. Putin said Monday at a meeting in the Kremlin with his Defence and Foreign ministers.

NATO leaders were caught off guard by Mr. Putin’s manoeuvring, but generally welcomed the notion of withdrawal as evidence that a tentative two-week-old ceasefire might lead to substantial negotiations for peace.

Immigration Minister John McCallum said the Russian move “looks like a new and potentially positive development.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that “if the announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal materializes, this will increase the pressure on the regime [of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to finally and seriously negotiate a peaceful political transition.”

Western diplomats speculated that Mr. Putin may be trying to press Mr. al-Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 300,000 people. But Damascus rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow.

With the help of several dozen Russian fighter aircraft and an undisclosed number of ground troops, the Syrian army has been able to regain control of much of what’s left of the heavily populated centre of the country, including vital sections of the city of Aleppo, and to push back rebel forces that were threatening the Latakia homeland of Mr. al-Assad.

Success came so readily that Mr. al-Assad recently dismissed the idea of a ceasefire in the fighting, declaring he would take back all of Syria. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, let it be known publicly that the Syrian leader’s words “do not chime” with Russia’s intentions. He told a Russian newspaper that Syria’s leaders should “take account” of Russia’s military help and follow its lead if they wanted to escape “with their dignity intact.”

That may well have been the moment Moscow decided on the timing of this withdrawal, said Mokhtar Lamani, a former UN and Arab League representative in Damascus, who was in Moscow at the time of Russia’s thinly veiled warning to Damascus.

“I think this notice about withdrawal is intended as a message both to Bashar al-Assad and to the opposition leaders that Putin is serious about getting a political settlement,” Mr. Lamani said. The Russian leader is “obviously willing to use his military – either by deploying it or by withdrawing it – as a way to persuade both sides to settle.”

Michael Bell, a former Canadian diplomat and expert in the region, admitted being surprised by the Putin announcement. “A complete withdrawal would just hand power to the Saudi-backed rebels,” he said. “I can’t see Russia doing that.”

“The only way it makes sense is if Putin plans to drag this withdrawal out over a very long time, or if he intends to keep a lot of forces inside Syria despite what he says.”

Mr. Putin gave no indication Monday of a deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and he indicated that an unspecified number of Russian forces would remain at the Russian naval base at Tartus and the expanded air base in Latakia, where Russia has launched most of its air strikes.

Both these facilities, Mr. Putin said, “will function as they did previously” and “must be reliably protected from land, sea and air.”

The Russian leader emphasized, however, that he hoped his decision “will significantly increase the level of trust among the participants in the Syrian settlement [process] and contribute to solving the Syrian [conflict] by peaceful means.”

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Mr. Putin told his ministers. And he ordered an intensification of Russia’s diplomatic efforts to achieve a peace deal.

For its part, Syria rejected suggestion of a rift with Moscow. Mr. al-Assad said in a statement that a “reduction” in force strength was “co-ordinated” and “had been studied for some time.”

Syrian state TV quoted Mr. Putin as saying the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured “victories against terrorism and returned security to the country.”

Mr. Putin also informed U.S. President Barack Obama of his move in a phone call in which he emphasized the importance of U.S.-Russian co-ordination “for preserving the ceasefire, ensuring humanitarian aid deliveries to the blockaded settlements and conducting an efficient struggle against terrorist groups,” according to the Kremlin, which added the conversation was “business-like and frank.”

In Ottawa, Mr. McCallum told reporters that “anything that can heighten the odds of an end to the civil war, heighten the odds of a reduction of literally millions of people displaced by this terrible war … is good obviously.”

He added: “Whether this will be a materially positive development or not, remains to be seen and I would leave that to [Foreign Minister Stéphane] Dion to address.”

Syrian rebel groups, too, are baffled by what Mr. Putin’s move means. Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the country’s northwest, told reporters: “I don’t understand the Russian announcement. It’s a surprise; like the way they entered the war. God protect us.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Mar. 14, 2016 1:51PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Mar. 14, 2016 10:05PM EDT