Confusion over US presence at Astana Syria talks

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Article Summary
A Russian invitation to the Trump transition team to send a representative to Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana Jan. 23 has caused confusion and revealed limited interactions between the incoming and outgoing US administrations.

WASHINGTON — Russia has issued an invitation to the Trump administration to send a representative to Syria peace talks set to get underway in the Kazakh capital of Astana next week. But amid the transition of power in Washington, there is confusion as to whether the United States will participate, who the new administration would send and who can even speak authoritatively for the intentions of the US government, which is changing presidents Jan. 20 but won’t have many foreign policy staff in place until later on.

At times, it seems that the incoming and outgoing administrations are observing their own kind of partial cease-fire, the former keeping the latter in the dark, even as it will inherit messy foreign policy challenges like Syria that largely ignore the US political calendar.

The awkwardness has been evident in trying to ascertain from the nonpartisan State Department even if the United States has received an invitation to Astana.

“Has there been a decision made on participation in the Kazakhstan conference on the 23rd?” a reporter asked at the State Department press briefing Jan. 17.

"Again, that’s a decision that should be posed to the Trump transition team,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby responded. “I’m not aware that they have made a decision. … I try not to talk about our communications with the transition team.”

“Has there been an invitation [to the Astana talks] that you’re aware of, through this building, to the occupants of the offices in this building post-January 20th?” the reporter then asked.

“We are certainly aware of reports of an invitation to the incoming team,” Kirby said. “I’m not aware of any specific communication to or with us now with respect to attendance at the conference. But this is a decision that has to be made by the incoming administration.”

“The Secretary [of State John Kerry] said … that he would encourage them [the Trump administration] to participate in the discussion,” Kirby added. “But again, it’s their decision to make.”

The Trump transition team does plan to send a representative to the Astana talks, even if it is just someone from the US Embassy in Astana, a former diplomat speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor.

“They have agreed with the Russians they will attend,” the former diplomat said. “They did not say at what level. But as the US, [they] will be on the table.”

Divisions between the three parties that brokered a December Syria cease-fire — Russia, Iran and Turkey — are also adding to confusion over the Astana talks.

Both Turkey and Russia have publicly said the United States will be invited to the Astana talks. But the Iranians said this week they don’t think the United States should come.

“We have not invited the US and oppose their presence [at the talks]," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Jan. 17, according to Iran’s Press TV.

The former diplomat said, “Internally, these three countries are still not on the same page. [Not] on the [Astana talks] invitation, on the agenda [or] on the subject to be discussed.”

Russia expert Michael Kofman said Vladimir Putin had used the back channel invitation to the Trump transition team — reportedly conveyed to Trump national security advisor designate Michael Flynn by the Russian ambassador on the very same day (Dec. 29) that Obama ordered sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats over interfering in the US elections — to try to snub the Obama administration. Russia does not care who the Trump team sends to Astana, “even if it’s the White House janitor,” Kofman said.

“Look, Russia wants to do the Astana talks and intentionally snub the Obama administration,” Kofman, with the Wilson Center Kennan Institute, told Al-Monitor Jan. 18. “It doesn’t matter [who the US sends]. Trump will be in place.”

For Putin, “The optics are saying, ‘Those [Obama administration] guys — I told them to do you-know-what with themselves. But you [Trump] and I are going to be friends, so you are welcome at the summit,’” Kofman said. “And the best part, the win-win scenario: Russia says you are welcome at the summit, and Iran says ‘no, we don’t want you there.’”

Kofman continued, “It’s a great scenario, Russia [telling Trump], ‘We obviously want you there. And the Iranian guys you don’t like — those jerks — don’t want you to be there.’”

Russia “gets to look like the power broker in the Middle East, shaping the Syria political settlement,” Kofman said. “They successfully cut out the Obama administration, and it is also angling to look like they are being magnanimous and bringing Trump.”

“And if it doesn’t pan out, it will be blamed on Iran: win-win scenario” for Russia, Kofman said.

With Trump and Putin exchanging overtures about wanting to improve relations and possibly cooperate on Syria and fighting the Islamic State, “the Iranians feel the Russians are playing against them,” the former diplomat said.

“Astana is a very expert-level meeting,” the former diplomat added. “They [the Trump administration] don’t have to send a new face. The US ambassador to Kazakhstan or the charge could attend.”

Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had met with Flynn in Washington Jan. 18 and is reportedly planning to attend Trump’s inauguration. “Met w/General Flynn, who will assume the position of national security advisor, and other officials at a working breakfast in Washington, D.C.,” Cavusoglu posted on Twitter Jan. 18.

Found in: cease-fire, us state department, obama administration, vladimir putin, transitional government, donald trump

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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