The post-Obama power axis in the Middle East continues taking shape. On Tuesday, President Obama’s respected negotiating partners in Iran declared the U.S. would not be welcome at Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan next week.
“We have not invited them, and we are against their presence,” declared Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – the very same minister who negotiated the nuclear deal with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Reuters adds that President Hassan Rouhani, the “moderate” leader Obama and his foreign policy team have worked so hard to benefit, gave a separate news conference on live Iranian television in which he declared, “Iran, Russia and Turkey managed to bring a ceasefire to Syria… It shows these three powers have influence. The armed groups have accepted the invitation of these three countries and are going to Astana.”
When the interviewer asked Rouhani why the United States and Saudi Arabia were not invited, he replied: “Some countries are not attending the talks, and their role was destructive. They were helping the terrorists.”
However, Turkey and Russia have decided to invite the U.S. to the conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, with the Russians specifically stating that the new American administration was getting an invitation. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used that phrase several times in his remarks, as related by Russian state outlet RT.com:
We’re now preparing the Astana meeting. We think it would be the right thing to invite the representatives of the UN and the new US administration to the meeting, taking into account that the meeting will take place on January 23, as planned.
We’re counting on the new [US] administration accepting this invitation and being represented by experts on any level they consider possible. It will be the first official contact during which we could begin discussing stepping up the efficiency of fighting terrorism in Syria
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said the United Nations was invited as well, in hopes they could act as “moderators of contacts between the Syrian sides.”
At the time of this writing, the incoming Trump administration had not formally responded to the offer, while U.N. representatives indicated they would attend the talks.
This helps to frame the peace talks on Russia’s terms, with the U.S. and U.N. positioned as babysitters for the fractious, terrorist-infested rebellion they have been supporting, against the advice of Moscow and Damascus. Even at that, Turkey is positioned as the principal patron of opposition forces in Syria, the third major power that worked with Russia and Iran to make the peace talks happen. Expect a great deal of spin along these lines to emerge from the peace talks, especially if the rebels keep squabbling with each other.
AFP’s report anticipates a good deal of squabbling at the peace talks, with the Syrian regime seeking a “comprehensive” political solution to the civil war, while rebels are focused on simply preserving and expanding the current cease-fire agreement. The Russians are trying to bridge the gap by saying the ceasefire comes first, then a more extensive resolution to the war can be built upon it.
Editor Waddah Abd Rabbo of the regime-friendly Syrian newspaper Al-Watan Daily said the Kazakhstan talks were “between Damascus and Ankara, sponsored by Russia and Iran, in a land free of Western pressure.”
The importance of Turkey’s role was underscored by news on Wednesday that Russian and Turkish warplanes carried out their first joint strikes against ISIS positions in Syria.
The BBC reports that ISIS “was targeted in the suburbs of the town of al-Bab, Aleppo province, where Turkey suffered heavy casualties last month battling the group on the ground.”
According to the Russian military, nine Russian and eight Turkish planes participated in the strikes, which the Russians pronounced “highly effective.”
The Associated Press writes that the airstrikes highlight “an increasingly close alliance between Russia and Turkey, which last month jointly brokered a Syria truce and are working to prepare Syrian talks in Kazakhstan next week.”
It looks like a successful strategy to edge the U.N., U.S., and Western powers out of the picture, replacing them with Turkey as the major-power representative of rebel forces – a representative that has been working to develop a closer relationship with Moscow ever since Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet along the Syrian border, a little over a year ago.
The outcome in Syria will be taken as an important lesson by many other nations, both inside and beyond the region. It is not in the long-term interests of the United States or Europe to have Russia and Iran teaching that lesson.