US will be invited to Syria talks, says Turkey

By Ali Choukeir, AFP

BEIRUT — Washington will be invited to fresh Syria peace talks being organized by Moscow and Ankara this month, Turkey’s foreign minister said, but Russia declined to confirm the invitation on Friday. On the ground meanwhile, Syria accused Israel of bombing a key air base near the capital Damascus before dawn, condemning the incident as a “desperate attempt to support terrorist organizations.” Despite backing opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, Russia and Turkey have worked closely in recent weeks to broker a nationwide ceasefire that is meant to pave the way for Jan. 23 peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. In the past, Washington has played a key role in attempts to bring Syria’s warring parties to the negotiating table, but it has been notably absent from the cooperation between Ankara and Moscow. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose country, like Washington, backs Syria’s rebels, nonetheless insisted Thursday that U.S. officials would be invited. “The United States should be definitely invited, and that is what we agreed with Russia,” he said. “Nobody can ignore the role of the United States. And this is a principled position of Turkey,” he added.

But the Kremlin, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, declined to comment on Cavusoglu’s statements. “I cannot say anything about this for now,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. He added however that Russia is “interested in the broadest possible representation of the parties who have a bearing on the prospects of a political settlement in Syria.” The Russian foreign ministry later issued a statement to say there had been “tripartite discussions” between Russia, Iran and Turkey on the holding of the talks. US to Take Back Seat Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that the next American administration would “join the efforts so that we can work in the same direction harmoniously and collectively.”

The Astana talks are scheduled to begin just three days after President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated. In recent months, Washington has been largely absent from international discussions about Syria, and experts say Trump is unlikely to focus on the conflict. “For the new American administration, it’s not a priority to play a role in resolving the Syrian crisis,” said Imad Salamey, head of the political science department at the Lebanese American University.