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By Liz Sly,
The Washington Post,
19 January 2017

Iran opposes U.S. participation in Russian-backed Syria talks

BEIRUT. Iran opposes the participation of the United States in Syrian peace talks backed by Russia that are due to be launched in Kazakhstan next week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday.

His comments contradicted promises from Russia and Turkey and indications from U.S. officials that the newly installed Trump administration would be invited to the talks, scheduled for Jan. 23 in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana.

They also pointed to the potential for conflict over at least one of the Middle East`s flashpoints between Tehran and the incoming Trump administration, which has consistently indicated that it plans to adopt a more hawkish posture toward Iran than the Obama administration.

"We have not invited the U.S. and oppose their presence" at the talks, Zarif said, according to Iran`s Press TV.

Whether Iran would refuse to attend if the United States were invited was not immediately clear. The talks are part of a three-way process led by Russia and including Turkey and Iran - now the three most powerful international players on the ground in Syria. The process is aimed at forging a settlement in Syria after the failure of the Obama administration`s diplomacy.

The opening round is expected to be a modest affair, with representatives of Syrian rebels meeting with members of the Syrian government to discuss the modalities of a shaky cease-fire that went into effect on Dec. 29, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. Representatives of the invited countries will attend in the role of observers, rather than participants.

Assuming the meeting takes place, it would represent a profound moment for the Syrian conflict, bringing the military protagonists together for the first time since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

It would also be a significant moment for the wider Middle East, signaling the first major initiative to resolve a big regional conflict in which the United States is not playing a leading role. Though Turkey and Iran are partnering with Russia in the effort, this is a Russian-led process, diplomats said.

No invitations have yet been formally issued, partly because Turkish efforts to persuade Syrian rebels to attend have dragged on longer than expected. On Tuesday, rebel commanders confirmed that half a dozen mostly Turkish-backed groups, most of them based in the north of the country, would send representatives.

Although Iran is one of the three sponsors of the peace talks, it has not signed the agreement reached between Russia and Turkey that launched the cease-fire, suggesting that Tehran has reservations about an effort that could potentially erode its extensive influence in Syria.

Both President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have said they regard Syria as one of the areas in which the United States and Russia could cooperate more closely. Trump has said on a number of occasions that he hopes better relations with Moscow will help counterbalance Iran`s expanding regional role.

Iran has been instrumental in providing the manpower and resources that have helped Assad`s government hold the rebellion at bay. Thousands of Iranian-trained Shiite militia fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan are on the front lines, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah is at the forefront of most of the major battles, and Iranian military advisers and commanders are embedded with them in many locations around the country.

The military conquests have cemented Iran`s role as a dominant player in Syria, making Iranian cooperation essential if any peace deal is to stick.


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