U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday he will head to Moscow next week to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about his troop withdrawal from Syria and the prospects for peace in the war-wracked country.
"We have reached a very important phase in this process," Kerry said in announcing the trip. "This is a moment to seize not waste. We have at this moment the ability to finally take steps toward ending war and bloodshed."
Kerry said he would talk with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about "how we can move the political process forward."
But the top U.S. diplomat warned that "lasting peace will be impossible without a genuine political transition" away from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has resisted any notion of stepping down.
News of Kerry's Moscow trip came as Syrian peace talks continued for a second day in Geneva and the first Russian military personnel returned from Syria to cheering crowds waiting to greet them.
Russian television showed three Su-34 fighter planes landing at an air base in the southern part of the country, with pilots in white helmets and aviator jackets mobbed by supporters on their arrival and thrown into the air in celebration. Amid waving Russian flags and red, white and blue balloons, a brass band played the Stalin-era "March of the Aviators" and the Russian national anthem.
At the peace talks in Geneva, the main Syrian opposition cautiously greeted Putin's troop withdrawal after five and a half months of operations in Syria, saying it could lead to an end to five years' of fighting and Assad's "dictatorship and his crimes."
The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called Putin's announcement a "significant development" and said he hopes it will lead to "a peaceful political transition in the country."
France also expressed cautious optimism, with its foreign ministry saying that if the Russian troop reduction is "followed up by concrete action, it would be a positive development."
Some military personnel to stay
Despite the initial withdrawal, Russia plans to keep about 1,000 military personnel at air and naval bases in Syria. The United States has estimated that Moscow has had between 3,000 and 6,000 troops in Syria.
In Syria, deputy defense minister Nikolai Pankov told Russian news agencies, "It is still too early to speak of victory over terrorism. The Russian air group has a task of continuing to strike terrorist targets."
Putin said Monday the "bulk" of his military contingent in Syria would leave now that they have largely fulfilled their tasks there, supporting Assad's forces in fighting against rebel groups trying to overthrow his government.
White House reaction
The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama called Putin Monday to discuss Russia's announcement of a withdrawal, and to talk about how to advance the political negotiations for Syria.
In Damascus, the office of Syria's presidency said Assad agreed to Russia's decision, but added that Russia had promised its air force contingent that arrived in late September will not leave the country altogether.
The Kremlin's website quoted Putin as saying Russia would maintain a "post" for supporting flights of aircraft involved in monitoring compliance with the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said Monday Russia is making this move to withdraw its forces from Syria because "we are in the political mode now, in the cessation of hostilities mode." He said, "Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve [a] political settlement in Syria."
He said, "Our forces have operated very effectively. Our military presence will continue to be there; it will be directed mostly at making sure the cease-fire, cessation of hostilities is maintained."
VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins contributed to this report.