WASHINGTON — The White House said Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin discussed Russia’s planned military drawdown in Syria on Monday, hours after a shock announcement that signals a new phase in the five-year-old conflict.
"They discussed President Putin’s announcement today of a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria and next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities," the White House said in a statement.
US officials earlier offered a cautious initial assessment of Putin’s order to begin withdrawing "the main part of our military contingents from the Syrian Arab Republic" from Tuesday.
Putin launched air strikes in September followed by a massive troop deployment, turning the tide of a long and brutal war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favour, rescuing his regime from the brink of collapse.
A recent "cessation of hostilities" has been frequently breached but, Obama said, led to a "much-needed reduction in violence".
The White House sought to turn the screws on Assad, just as his backing from Russia was called into question.
"Continuing offensive actions by Syrian regime forces risk undermining both the Cessation of Hostilities and the UN-led political process," the White House cited Obama as saying.
"The president also noted some progress on humanitarian assistance efforts in Syria but emphasised the need for regime forces to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance delivery to the agreed-upon locations, notably Daraya."
Putin’s announcement appeared timed to coincide with peace talks in Geneva that have been dominated by a disagreement over Assad’s fate.
Russia has remained steadfast in its public support of Assad, while opposition groups, the United States and key European countries have called on Assad to go as part of a negotiated transition.
"A political transition is required to end the violence in Syria," Obama said.
IS commander dead
The Pentagon confirmed on Monday a top Islamic State group commander known as "Omar the Chechen" is dead after suffering injuries in a US-led coalition strike in northeastern Syria.
The announcement would appear to clear up the fate of the notorious Omar al-Shishani, a week after a US official said the most-wanted militant had been targeted in a March 4 attack on the jihadist’s convoy.
"We believe he subsequently died of his injuries," said Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Shishani had been "clinically dead" for several days.
Shishani -- the nom de guerre of Tarkhan Batirashvili - was one of the IS leaders most wanted by Washington, which put a US$5 million bounty on his head. — AFP