As US & Russia Dicker over a Syria Ceasefire, the Obama-Putin Pact Is Firm

After four-and-a-half months of savage Russian air strikes over Syria, outrage in the West over the human suffering grew to the point that Moscow was forced to make some response.
The Russian proposal of a ceasefire starting from March 1 was made public on Wednesday, Feb. 10. However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Washington and Moscow sources, it was put before the Obama administration quietly in the third week of January. Nothing was done about it because President Barack Obama and the Pentagon were against accepting it, whereas Secretary of State John Kerry was in favor.
The fly in the ointment was this: For the ceasefire to be reciprocal, it has to be binding on all the parties to the Syrian civil war. Putin was able to guarantee that the Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces would lay down arms on the date, whereas Obama could only speak for some of the Syrian rebel groups and then, too, he would have to go through Saudi Arabia to obtain their concurrence.
For that purpose, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was asked to join the meeting held in Munich, Germany, Thursday, on Feb. 11, between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources estimate that the three officials are expected to spend week’s end hashing out a compromise deal on the timing and conditions of the Syrian ceasefire.
For the Saudis this was a diplomatic perk. Equal standing in this trilateral deal gives Saudi Arabia a strong hand in Syrian diplomacy after being sidelined by Iran for many months.
But Tehran was quick to spoil the Saudi triumph: The Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammed Javad Zarif jumped on a plane to Munich Thursday night, Feb. 11, at the last t minute.
But this was also the first time since Saudi Arabia and Iran severed diplomatic relations last month, that their top diplomats attended the same key event, and could not avoid talking to each other. It would not be surprising if Kerry and Lavrov did not use the opportunity for fence-mending between the two Gulf governments.
At the moment, Washington and Moscow need Riyadh’s cooperation to present a façade that most of the mainline opposition groups are on board for the ceasefire. But once that is in place, the two powers may dispense with the Saudi voice for determining the future of President Bashar Assad and Syria at large.
This is because the Saudis are playing ball on these issues with Turkey and its president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, and neither Washington nor Moscow is willing to let him dictate the conditions prevailing on the Turkish border with Syria.
Neither was averse to dealing Turkey a major affront in the Kurdish arena, which Ankara regards as affecting its vital national security interests. On Feb. 10, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, based in Afrin on the Turkish border, launched an attack to capture Mannagh, which used to be the Syrian air force’s largest base in the north until it was captured by rebel forces in 2013.
The Kurdish operation marked a game-changer in four ways:
1. It was the first Syrian Kurdish militia operation against rebel forces – to be fought on the side of the combined campaign waged by Russians, Syrians, Iranians and Hizballah.
2. The Kurdish intervention added a third side to the siege on rebel positions in the North, including Aleppo. The rebels are now beset by three foes: the Russians, the combined Iranian-Hizballah contingents and now the Kurds.
3. The loss of Mannagh air base deprived the encircled rebels, who have lost control of their supply lines from Turkey, of an alternative entry-point for reinforcements and ammunition and of their exit for evacuating the wounded.
4. Turkey is increasingly isolated in its struggle against the Kurds.
On Feb. 10, President Erdogan vented his frustration by lashing out at Washington for supporting the main Syrian Kurdish group. In a fiery speech, he declared that US failure to recognize the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a terrorist group was creating a "sea of blood.”
Ankara also alleged that PYD’s military wing, the PYD, is a Syrian offshoot of the banned Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
It was obvious from Erdogan’s furious rhetoric that his MIT intelligence agency had missed Russian-Kurdish preparations for seizing the Mannagh air base from a rebel group backed by Turkey.
Not only were the Russians and Kurdish militia fighting shoulder to shoulder, but, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources, the Obama administration approved the joint air base attack.
It was rewarded by the evacuation from Qamishli international airport of Russian planes, engineering units and the small Special Operations units recently deployed there.
This airport is located in one of the Kurdish enclaves on the Syrian-Turkish border.
In this way, Putin followed the terms of the accord he reached with Obama four months ago, which placed Syrian territory west of the Euphrates under Russian military control and allotted the area east of the river to American military forces.
(This pact was revealed in DEBKA Weekly 688 of Dec. 4, 2015.)
Wednesday, the White House point man on the Islamic State was pressed by members of the House Foreign Affairs on US action regarding the situation in Aleppo, and the protection of Syrians from Russian and Assad regime air strikes.
Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, fended off several attempts by committee members to comment on possible policy options. He consistently ducked lawmakers’ questions on US policy with regard to Russian military operations in Syria.
The White House appears to be standing firm against attempts to shift Obama away from his pact with the Russian president.

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