Middle East

US envoy to Kazakhstan to attend Syria talks as an observer

The US State Department said on Saturday it will not send a delegation from Washington to attend Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital next week due to immediate demands of the transition.

The State Department's acting spokesperson Mark Toner said US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, would attend the January 23 Russian-led talks as an observer.

"We welcome and appreciate Kazakhstan's invitation to participate as an observer," Toner said in a statement, "Given our presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition, a delegation from Washington will not be attending the Astana conference."

Toner said the US was committed to a political resolution to the Syrian crisis through a Syrian-owned process.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday he hoped the new administration of President Donald Trump would send a Middle East expert to the talks.

With Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, not expected to get a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote before Monday, the new administration asked the State Department's No. 3 official, Tom Shannon, to stay on.

UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura has said he intends to convene separate peace talks in Geneva on Febuary 8. The UN-backed talks have been held intermittently. Russia says the Kazakh talks would complement, rather than compete with, the UN talks.

The Moscow-led effort to revive diplomacy, without the participation of the United States, has emerged with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad buoyed by the defeat of rebels in Aleppo, and as ties thaw between Russia and Turkey, long one of the rebels' main backers.

Air strikes and clashes, particularly near the Syrian capital Damascus, have tarnished a shaky ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey since it began two weeks ago, and the warring sides have accused each other of violations.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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