Kerry eyes Moscow trip as Russian pullout boosts peace hopes
The first of Russia's warplanes to leave Syria received a hero's welcome back home Tuesday, starting a surprise withdrawal the West hopes could boost peace talks by pressuring Damascus.
In a sign of potential progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced he will travel to Moscow next week for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to "try to take advantage of this moment."
In Geneva meanwhile the UN envoy mediating peace talks said Syria's opposing sides have submitted documents outlining broad principles for a political solution to the country's five-year civil war.
In a surprise move Monday, Putin ordered the "main part" of Russia's forces out of the war-torn nation, but the Kremlin denied it was trying to pressure its long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Russia will, however, keep a contingent at its air and naval bases in Syria and a senior official said strikes against "terrorist targets" would continue.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that "Russian helicopters and warplanes, that are likely Russian" had struck IS targets around the ancient city of Palmyra. There was no official confirmation from Moscow.
- 'Take advantage of moment' -
The West is watching closely to see what Russian forces do. In Washington, the White House said "the earliest indications are that the Russians are following through" on the decision to withdraw troops.
Later Monday Kerry announced he will hold talks with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow next week.
The talks will "discuss how we can effectively move the political process forward and try to take advantage of this moment," Kerry said.
Kerry did not give a date for the planned visit, but his spokesman told reporters it would be after Tuesday next week, when the US envoy returns from a trip to Cuba with President Barack Obama.
UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura described the withdrawal announcement as a "significant development" for talks that began Monday in Geneva, the latest push to end the brutal conflict as it enters its sixth year.
"We hope (this) will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations," he said in a statement.
If the Geneva talks make progress, Syria's main opposition group told AFP Tuesday it would be ready to negotiate in the same room with the regime instead of via a mediator.
After the second day of talks, the UN mediator told reporters he would try to "analyse" the positions offered by the regime and opposition in a bid to find any possible common ground.
"We... exchanged some papers but also ideas on how to get deeper at the next meeting on the issue of transitional processes," de Mistura said.
Putin said Monday that Moscow's military goal had been "on the whole" completed some five-and-a-half months and 9,000 combat sorties after the Kremlin launched its bombing campaign in support of Assad.
- West reacts cautiously -
From the start of Russia's military intervention, Putin progressively became more involved in Syria as the United States has stepped back from the Middle East.
As a player in Syria's conflict, Putin was able thrust himself back onto the global scene, exiting from the international isolation stemming from the crisis in Ukraine.
The West reacted cautiously to Putin's announcement. Moscow has yet to specify a timeframe for completing the withdrawal, and a Kremlin official said Russia will keep advanced air defence systems in Syria.
Some governments expressed hope the Russian move could push Assad to negotiate, but in Geneva both sides have so far remained locked in a bitter dispute over his fate.
The Geneva talks opened after a temporary ceasefire between Assad's forces and opponents went into force on February 27 and has largely held, although it does not cover IS jihadists and Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.
The current round of negotiations aimed at ending the five-year war are so-called proximity talks, with United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting separately with opposing sides.
"We are ready in the next stage to go in direct negotiations with the regime," the spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Salem al-Meslet told AFP.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a Russian withdrawal "increases the pressure" on Assad to negotiate, while France's foreign ministry said "anything that helps towards a de-escalation in Syria should be encouraged".
© 2016 AFP