Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has today confirmed that the Russians have extended an invitation to the US to join the Syrian peace talks in Astana, which is due to start on Monday.
It is not yet certain that US President Trump – due to be inaugurated tomorrow – will accept this offer, but the likelihood is that he will.
The Russian offer is known to have been backed by Turkey but to have attracted misgivings from Iran, which along with Russia and Turkey is co-hosting the conference. The Russians have however clearly prevailed over this issue.
The Russian offer is in part a courtesy extended to the incoming Trump administration, signalling Russia’s willingness to work with the new administration to patch up relations. However there is also undoubtedly a hardheaded calculation that if the US is excluded from the negotiations in Astana it will have more incentive to act as a spoiler. With the US still pulling many of the strings in the Syrian conflict, that is not a situation the Russians want to face, which is why they would rather have the US talking in Astana, on the assumption that this will make it less likely that the US will make trouble for Moscow in Syria.
If Donald Trump is serious about making the fight against ISIS his priority he will accept the Russian offer. It is overwhelmingly in the US interest to put aside its regime change obsession, so that it can achieve a settlement in Syria that would enable all the local forces (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) to join together with the US and Russia in fighting ISIS.
The trouble is that there are probably officials in the incoming Trump administration who are every bit as dismayed by the way the US has been sidelined in the Syrian conflict as officials in the outgoing Obama administration are known to be. They will no doubt be determinedly lobbying for the US to stay away from Astana, and for it instead to double down on its support for the Kurds and for the various Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian government in order to leverage Russia back into a bilateral dialogue with the US.
Even if Trump does decide that the US should attend the Astana conference these people will not go away, and it remains to be see whether if the US attends the conference in Astana whether it will chose to play a constructive role.
The Russians nonetheless appear to hope that Trump’s pragmatism will ultimately prevail over the wounded pride of many US officials. It remains to be see whether it is Russian optimism or Iranian skepticism which will turn out to be right.