This is actually a big deal, if for real.

The Russian air force and associated troops manning the airfield and anti-aircraft systems have been responsible for many of the recent gains by Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed foreign militias fighting to keep Assad in power.

Russia Today, generally perceived as pro-Putin, reports:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to start the withdrawal of forces from Syria starting Tuesday.
“I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished. That is why I order to start withdrawal of the main part of our military group from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic starting from tomorrow,” Putin said on Monday during a meeting with Shoigu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

To control the observation of ceasefire agreements in the region, Moscow will keep its Hmeymim airbase in Latakia province, Putin said.

The Guardian quotes Western diplomats as questioning how far this will go:

The news, relayed to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, personally, followed a meeting in the Kremlin with Putin’s defence and foreign ministers. He said the pullout, reducing an intervention that began at the end of September, is due to start from Tuesday.

Western diplomatic sources said “we will have to wait and see what this represents. It is Putin. He has announced similar concessions in the past and nothing materialised”….

The Russian president said the country’s airbase in Hemeimeem in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus will continue to operate.

Syrian opposition sources said they had no prior information of Putin’s plan and said they will wait to see if it emerges to be true or a political manoeuvre. Diplomatic sources suggested Putin would be speaking to US president Barack Obama to explain his move, which will give Washington an opportunity to assess how serious the Russian withdrawal is likely to be.

While Russian air power, which has killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians, has helped Assad, it has not been able to break the back of numerous rebel groups, including those associated with ISIS.

Rebels just recently shot down a Syrian MIG 21 figher with a handheld anti-aircraft missile, perhaps signalling a new and more dangerous phase for Russian fighter jets.

Putin didn’t achieve the quick and overwhelming victory he sought, so he’s declaring victory and leaving rather than get further bogged down.