STATE DEPARTMENT - The United States was on the sidelines as peace talks aimed at ending the war in Syria got under way in Kazakhstan's capital of Astana.
U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol represented the Trump administration as an observer, while Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Syrian rebels tried to work out a long-term peace agreement. But the absence of a strong U.S. voice in the talks is raising questions about the future of American influence in the Middle East.
The Astana talks were brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran with no direct U.S. input. The invitation for Washington to participate as an observer came from the government of Kazakhstan, according to the State Department.
"Our position remains the same with regard to any effort to bring about a durable cease-fire in Syria. At the same time, we want to see access — full access — for humanitarian assistance. And then, ultimately, we want to see that political negotiations are back up and running in Geneva between the parties. Because, ultimately, that is the way to solve this," State Department acting spokesperson Mark Toner told VOA on Monday.
Toner added that the long-term solution to the Syrian crisis is a political, not a military, one.
"We've got to get these political talks up and running again because that's the way out of this,” he said. “And what those political talks need to result in is a political process, a transition, that respects the Syrian people's desires and aspirations for a more democratic system. This is not for us to decide; this is for the Syrians themselves to work out. "
‘Rejection’ of U.S.
While the U.S. has not been a direct party of organizing the Astana talks, Washington does not oppose the initiative and has been in close contact with both Moscow and Ankara.
But experts said the Astana meetings were conducted "in some way as a rejection of the United States."
"I think this is all part of sort of a wide political scheme in order to present the United States with certain facts and get it on board largely with what is a Russian position," Michael Kofman, from the Center for Naval Analyses, told VOA.
Kofman added, "I have no doubt that Russia, Iran and other countries understand it's very difficult for them to actually have serious talks and lock in gains without U.S. involvement."
Heather Conley, former deputy assistant secretary of state, said the brokering of the Astana talks by Russia, Iran and Turkey "was done in some ways as a rejection of the United States."
She said to keep an eye on Turkey.
"The Turkish-Russian rapprochement is something that we have to follow closely to understand what the principles of that relationship will be," Conley said at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Officials said the Astana talks do not include direct negotiations between the Syrian government and rebel groups. Syrian rebels that attended the talks said they would focus on the enforcement of an ongoing cease-fire and humanitarian issues.
Cease-fire, Islamic State
Meanwhile, Syrian activists said the success of the Astana talks rests with "effective monitoring and enforcement" of a nationwide Syria cease-fire.
When asked about Syria during his confirmation hearing earlier this month, President Donald Trump's Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson acknowledged that "Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran are dictating the terms of how things are going to play out in Syria today."
He told lawmakers the U.S. should re-engage with traditional allies, including Turkey, a critical and longstanding NATO ally.
Tillerson's remarks on priorities to solve the Syria crisis were seen as a break from the Obama administration.
"We've had two competing priorities in Syria under this [the Obama] administration. [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad must go and the defeat of ISIS. And the truth of the matter is, carrying both of those out simultaneously is extremely difficult because at times they conflict with one another," said Tillerson during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on January 11. He referred to the Islamic State terrorist group as ISIS.
"The clear priority is to defeat ISIS. We defeat ISIS, we at least create some level of stability in Syria, which then lets us deal with the next priority of what is going to be the exit of Bashar [al-]Assad," he added.
But Atlantic Council's Middle East expert Frederic Hof said, "Assad and Islamist extremism are two sides of the same murderous and terrorist coin," and a clear understanding of the "truth" would be a good place for the Trump administration to start sorting out the difficult Syrian crisis.