By Debkafile—

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 began on Thursday, 29 December, at midnight local time.

The deal excludes the Islamic State (ISIS) the al-Nusra Front and all groups linked to them. Putin has not specified rebel groups that are covered by the ceasefire.

“We have been waiting for this event for a long time and working very hard,” Putin said at a meeting with his foreign and defense ministers. He added that 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.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier that his country and Moscow would act as guarantors under the plan. Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in the conflict that has raged for more than five years. If it is true they are guarantors, and if the truce 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 intelligence 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. The test of its success began last night at midnight, on Thursday, 29 December. It is a test that continues in upcoming peace talks in Kazakhstan.

Sixteen months ago Vladimir Putin pulled off a gamble by stepping up direct Russian military intervention in Syria’s brutal conflict. Using his air force, he has swung the tide of war in favor of victory for Bashar Assad’s government – which was his endgame.

Whether by coincidence or design, Putin’s announcement of the Syrian truce deal landed on a hectic international stage. On Wednesday, 28 December, US President Barack Obama and a group of senators weighed with a call for fresh sanctions as punishment for alleged Russian hackers’ interference in the presidential election campaign. This, in spite of the fact that many Western cyber experts note the absence of concrete evidence.

At the end of that same day, outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a parting shot against Israel in a one hour, seventeen minute tirade devoted entirely to the elusive matter of Israel-Palestinian peace.

His content and the bitterness of his tone indicated how far the Obama administration has been out of touch with the latest Middle East developments, especially 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; now 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.

By doing these things, Russia has elevated itself up to a new, enhanced and 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 20 January.

It was a patronizing invitation. If the US agreed, it would join the historic peace event as just another player, not as a global superpower.

Donald Trump is 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 military forces from other countries that have participated 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 saying 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 troops along with Hezbollah and other Shiite forces from Syria. This is something demanded by Turkey as co-guarantor with Russia of the Syrian truce.

Iran is likely to 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.