US Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Russia next week to discuss the Syria crisis, Washington said on Tuesday, after Moscow began withdrawing most of its forces from the country.
Kerry said he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “try to take advantage of this moment,” which he described as the best opportunity in years to end the bloodshed. Russia’s withdrawal has spurred hopes for peace talks being held in Geneva to try to end Syria’s brutal five-year conflict, which has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.
Putin ordered the “main part” of Russia’s forces out of Syria on Monday, but pledged to keep some air and naval bases in the nation.
A senior Russian official said strikes would also continue against “terrorist targets,” and a monitoring group said Russian aircraft had struck the Islamic State group near the ancient city of Palmyra.
UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura described the withdrawal as a “significant development” for the talks, after the regime and rebel delegations submitted their roadmaps for a political solution.
“We hope [this] will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations,” he said.
The White House said “the earliest indications are that the Russians are following through” on the withdrawal and some Russian aircraft had left Syria.
“I will be traveling next week to Moscow... to discuss how we can effectively move the political process forward and try to take advantage of this moment.”
The first of Russia’s warplanes to leave Syria received a hero’s welcome at an airbase outside the city of Voronezh, where they were greeted by a ceremonial flypast and dozens of cheering supporters.
Pilots were tossed in the air as they disembarked, before being given a traditional present of a loaf of bread and salt, while a robed Orthodox priest offered them an icon to kiss.
Some governments expressed hope the Russian move could pressure its long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate — although the Kremlin has denied that was its intention.
The Syrian president’s fate remains a key sticking point in the Geneva talks, which are also looking at how to form a new government, a fresh constitution and hold elections within 18 months.
If they make progress, Syria’s main opposition group on Tuesday told reporters it would be ready to negotiate in the same room with the regime instead of via a mediator.
A commander told reporters that al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front was preparing to launch a new offensive “within the next 48 hours” to recapture territory from the regime.
“The Russians withdrew for one reason,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “[Russia] will not make any more sacrifices for a regime that has basically collapsed.”
Government troops have made significant advances since Moscow began its airstrikes in support of Assad’s army in September last year.
Russian warplanes carried out fresh strikes on Tuesday near Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site which Islamic State fighters have systematically destroyed since capturing it in May last year.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told reporters that “Russian helicopters and warplanes, that are likely Russian” had struck Islamic State targets near the ancient city.
There was no official confirmation from Moscow.
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