Three weeks after John Kerry's State Department was humiliated one last time when Russia, Turkey and Syria sat down alone, demonstratively without inviting the US, to discuss the terms of a proposed Syrian ceasefire, Russia has already offered a diplomatic fig leaf to the incoming Trump administration when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the press Russia has invited the United States to take part in the upcoming talks on Syria,
"As I said yesterday, we have already invited the US," Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on Thursday.
And since the meeting on the Syrian settlement is scheduled to take place in the Kazakh capital of Astana on January 23, three days after Trump takes over, the implication is clear: the invite is for the Trump administration only. Lavrov confirmed:
“We think it would be the right thing to invite the representatives of the UN and the new US administration to the meeting,” Lavrov had said on Wednesday, at a press conference summing up the results of Russian foreign policy in 2016.
Quoted by RT, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Farhan Haq told RIA Novosti on Wednesday that the UN “has received an invitation to take part” and will attend. He added that the UN representatives will “try to give maximum support” to the negotiations. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has also been invited to the talks, though his humanitarian advisor, Jan Egeland, said on Thursday the UN’s role at the talks was still under discussion. “I do however take it for granted that Russia, Turkey, Iran, will understand the immense responsibility they take upon themselves as guarantors of an agreement of another process to enable a new beginning for the civilian population of Syria,” Egeland told reporters in Geneva.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has said the peace talks in Astana will focus on achieving a ceasefire and allowing rebel groups to reach “reconciliation” deals with the government.
“So far, we believe that Astana will be about talks with terrorist groups over a ceasefire and allowing them to reach reconciliation deals,” Assad said in an interview with Japanese media outlet TBS, parts of which were published on the president’s Twitter feed on Thursday.
Russia’s own delegation to the talks in Astana will include representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov revealed on Thursday. He also noted that Russia supports the possible expansion of the Syrian opposition delegation to the negotiations opposition delegation to the negotiations, which currently represents 14 militant groups.
“The total number of groups that are represented by their leaders is only 14. This means that 14 groups have joined the ceasefire agreement, but we advocate for more to join,” Bogdanov said, as cited by RIA Novosti. A number of Syrian rebel groups indeed confirmed that they will attend the peace talks in Astana. A leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Mohammed Alloush, said he would head the rebel delegation and work to end the “crimes” of the government and its allies.
“All the rebel groups are going. Everyone has agreed,” Alloush told AFP news agency on Monday. The High Negotiations Committee, Syria's main opposition bloc, last week also stated that it would support the delegation attending the talks.However, the pro-opposition Shaam News Network reported earlier this week that several other rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, one of the main fighting forces on the ground, plan to boycott the talks over the army’s offensive on the village of Wadi Barada.
We have no doubt that should Trump's new SecState, Rex Tillerson, be present, all the rebel groups will likewise be there, and a definitive peace treaty will emerge, especially if the US is no longer directly arming Assad's opponents.
But more importantly, Monday's meeting will be a good first test to gauge Trump's resolve, at least when it comes to his foreign policy commitment: having stated previously that he is against the continuation of the Syrian war and is for a return of peace, should Trump snub the invite, it will be a strong first hint that the US military-industrial complex is still pulling the strings on yet another administration.