Syria ready for truce, Assad stays, US is left out
DEBKAfile Special Report
President Vladimir Putin has announced that the Syrian government and rebels have signed a truce deal and are ready to begin peace talks. The ceasefire begins Thursday, Dec. 289, at midnight local time. The deal excludes the Islamic State the ex-Nusra Front and all groups linked to them. He did not say which rebel groups were covered.
We have been waiting for this event for a long time and working very hard, said, Putin at a meeting with foreign and defense ministers. He said the two sides had signed three documents:
The first document covers the ceasefire; the second is a set of measures to monitor the ceasefire, and the third is a statement of readiness to start peace negotiations on the Syrian settlement.
Putin noted that the Syrian deal was fragile and required special attention and patience and constant contact with the partners.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that Turkey and Russia would act as guarantors under the plan. The two countries back opposing sides in the conflict, which has raged for more than five years. If true, and if the truce deal is respected, it could end a six-year civil war that has killed potentially more than 430,000 and forced around 11 million from their homes.
DEBKAfile’s sources add: The Russian-Turkish initiative, to which Iran is almost certainly co-opted, brings the Syria war the closest it has ever been to conclusion in more than five years of bloodshed. Its success will be tested at midnight on Thursday, Sept. 29, and the coming peace talks in Kazakhstan.
Vladimir Putin pulled off a gamble by stepping up direct Russian military intervention in the brutal conflict 16 months ago and using his air force to swing the tide of war in favor of victory for the Bashar Assad government – which was his endgame.
Whether by coincidence or design, Putin’s announcement of the Syrian truce deal landed on a hectic international stage. US President Barack Obama and a group of senators weighed in Wednesday with a call for fresh sanctions as punishment for alleged Russian hackers’ interference in the presidential election campaign, although many Western cyber experts note the absence of concrete evidence of this.
At the end of the day, outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his parting shot against Israel in a 1 hour, 17 minute tirade devoted entirely to the elusive Israel-Palestinian peace.
His content and the bitterness of his tone indicated how far the Obama administration was out of touch with the latest Middle East developments and the ebbing of US influence on major events.
Four important points stand out in the Putin Syrian ceasefire announcement:
1. Syria cannot celebrate final peace – or even a total end of hostilities. Even if the 62,000 fighters of the seven main rebel groups and government forces truly lay down arms from Thursday midnight, the war against the big jihadist groups, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, will go on.
In the face of it, the situation of the jihadist groups has taken a turn for the worst, since the Syrian government army and its backers will now be free to focus on smashing them for good. On the other hand, some of the fringe rebel groups may reject the truce and peace deal on the table and prefer to carry on fighting in the ranks of the Islamist groups, bringing their arms with them.
2. The incoming Trump administration in Washington is presented with a serious challenge in terms of world influence by the Russian president’s success in halting warfare in all parts of Syria after a breakthrough Russian-backed government victory in Aleppo. Russia has by these feats hauled itself up to a new, enhanced strategic standing in the Middle East.
Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said on Thursday that Trump’s administration would be welcome to join the Syrian peace process once he takes office on Jan. 20.
This was a patronizing invitation to the United States to come along to the historic peace event as just another player and not as a global superpower. Donald Trump is most unlikely to accept the invitation, unless he and Putin come to some quiet arrangement in advance.
3. The continued presence of Syrian forces in Syria is an important issue in relation to foreign military participation in the war. Putin indicated that he was amenable to a partial Russian military drawdown Thursday when he met with his foreign and defense ministers to confer on the next steps in Syria. Defense Minister Andrew Shoigu is quoted as sayomg that Russia was ready to begin drawing down its deployment in Syria, which consists of several dozen fixed-wing aircraft, along with helicopters, ships and special forces soldiers.
“All conditions have been created for the reduction of the Russian group in Syria,” Shoigu said, without elaborating on how large the force reduction could be, or which forces may be withdrawn.
The Russians were pointing the way for Tehran to start withdrawing its own and Hizballah and other Shiite forces from Syria, a demand also made by Turkey, co-guarantor with Russia of the Syrian truce.
Iran will most likely pretend not to hear these messages, at least in the early stages of the process of de-escalating the Syrian war.
4. There is now no question that Bashar Assad remains in power in Damascus. Obama’s demand for his removal was never timely or realistic.