Russian President Vladimir Putin bypassed the U.S. on Thursday in announcing agreement with Iran, Turkey and rebel groups on a ceasefire in Syria to be followed by peace talks aimed at ending the nearly six-year-old civil war.
"Peace talks are ready to begin," Putin was quoted as saying by the country's official TASS news agency. Russian officials and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said a truce guaranteed by Russia and Turkey would go into effect at midnight Thursday.
If the ceasefire holds, peace talks are to be held, possibly in mid-January, in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The U.S. was excluded from the ceasefire arrangements and also from talks in Moscow earlier this month involving the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran that led to the agreement. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said President-elect Donald Trump would be welcome to bring the U.S. back into negotiations.
"I would also like to express my hope that when the administration of Donald Trump assumes its responsibilities, they may also join these efforts in order to work toward this goal in a friendly and collective manner," Lavrov said.
Guarded U.S. Approval
Despite the apparent snub to the Obama administration, State Department spokesman Mark Toner gave guarded U.S. approval to an agreement that offered the possibility of ending a civil war that has killed more than 450,000, displaced more than 10 million Syrians and spawned the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
"Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome," Toner said. "We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties."
Two previous efforts by the U.S. and Russia under the auspices of the United Nations to broker a ceasefire in Syria both failed, but Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that under the new agreement there was "a real chance to reach a political settlement to end the bloodshed and establish the future of the country."
The possibility for a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations under Trump grew more complicated only hours after Putin's announcement on Syria as President Obama issued an executive order outlining wide-ranging sanctions on Russia for reportedly attempting to influence U.S. elections by hacking the Democratic National Committee.
The sanctions named Lt. Gen. Igor Korobov, head of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence unit, as part of what a senior administration official called a long-standing "pattern of behavior" aimed at undermining U.S. national security.
The executive order also cited 35 Russian officials in the U.S. under diplomatic cover as "persona non grata" and gave them 72 hours to leave the country.
Speaking on grounds of anonymity, the senior administration official said that Trump, who has voiced admiration for Putin, could reverse the executive order once he's in office, but "I don't think that would make sense."
In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the committee, said, "The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama administration today are long overdue. But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy,"
"We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia," said McCain and Graham, who also have called for a harder line against Russia and Assad in Syria, to include setting up no-fly zones and safe corridors for refugees.
Speaking in Moscow, Putin said that the Syrian ceasefire agreements "are no doubt very fragile and they demand special attention and follow-up in order to keep them and develop them."
"Now we need to do everything for these agreements to work, so that negotiators would come to Astana and would begin to work on a real peace process. I call on the Syrian government, armed opposition, all countries involved, to support these agreements," Putin said.
He described the agreements as having three parts: "The first was signed by the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition to stop hostilities in the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. The second one is a set of measures to control the ceasefire. The third document is a declaration of intention for a Syrian [peace] settlement," Putin said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said later that the agreements could lead to a drawdown of Russian forces, which entered Syria in October 2015. At Putin's direction, Russian warplanes have carried out a relentless bombing campaign that has shored up Assad and led to the fall earlier this month of rebel-held Aleppo.
Syria's National Coalition, a leading political opposition group based in Turkey, confirmed its support for the truce. A senior official, Hadi al-Bahra, described it as "a positive achievement" in a message posted to Twitter, saying his group would "make sure that this agreement will be implemented fully."
Russian and Turkish officials said the ceasefire proposal would not apply to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or to the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly known as the Al Nusra Front.
Frayed Relations with Turkey
The close cooperation of NATO ally Turkey with Russia on the ceasefire agreements is expected to complicate already frayed relations between Turkey and the U.S. and have implications for the U.S.-supported offensive by Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara took the unusual step of issuing a lengthy and heated denial of charges by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. was aiding ISIS to thwart efforts by the Turkish military to clear border areas inside Syria.
The embassy's statement used the term Daesh, an Arabic acronym, to refer to ISIS and said: "For those interested in the truths, here are the truths -- the United States government is not supporting Daesh. The USG did not create or support Daesh in the past. Assertions [that] the United States government is supporting Daesh are not true."
The embassy also denied frequent Turkish charges that the U.S. was "providing weapons or explosives to the YPG or the PKK -- period. We repeatedly have condemned PKK terrorist attacks and the group's reprehensible violence in Turkey."
The Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, is the lead force in the drive on Raqqa by the rebel umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, is a left-wing organization that has been branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S.
Turkey has warned the U.S. against allowing the YPG to enter Raqqa and threatened to send its own forces to take the northeastern Syrian city. In a video conference to the Pentagon from Baghdad earlier this month, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said the plan was to have the YPG participate in an isolation phase against Raqqa but stay out of the city.
At the State Department on Wednesday, spokesman Toner said, "We're mindful, of course, of some of the tensions that exist" between the YPG and Turkey. He said the U.S. was in close consultation with Turkey on easing the tensions.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.