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US goes from bandleader to bystander in Syria peace efforts

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington.

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AP, Washington :
Stung by years of failure to stop Syria's bloodshed, the United States is now but a bystander to the civil war as President Barack Obama leaves office.
Secretary of State John Kerry still is speaking sporadically with Russian, Turkish and Arab foreign ministers about cease-fire efforts, and there are occasional consultations with the opposition. But less than two weeks before Donald Trump's presidency begins, the outgoing administration is no longer even claiming to play the leading part in the peace mediation that it spearheaded unsuccessfully for years. Formal contacts with Russia and others in Geneva, the main meeting point for the U.S.-led diplomacy, have ended.
Leadership has been ceded to Russia and, to a lesser degree, Turkey and Iran. After helping Syria's military oust the remaining rebels in Aleppo last month, Moscow has cast itself as the would-be peacemaker, clinching a new truce without Washington's help and announcing Friday that it was starting to draw down its forces in the region. Russian envoys also are organizing the first talks between the Syrian government and opposition in nearly a year, set for later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan.
"We still are at the proverbial table," State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday. "We may not be at the table in Astana, we may not be at the table in Moscow, I understand that. But it's not like we are walking away from Syria."
He added later: "We aren't connected to this piece of it. It's not like we're pulling out from the whole puzzle."
With no indication about how the incoming Trump administration intends to proceed on Syria, U.S. diplomats are wary of engaging in any new initiatives that would require a sustained American role. As a result, it is ambivalent about attending even in an observer role the proposed peace meeting. Turkey has told the U.S. its presence would be acceptable, American officials said, but Washington has yet to make a decision.
The diminution of the American role could have drawbacks.
Obama demanded almost six years ago that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave power and allow for a democratic transition. But Obama's reticence to plunge the U.S. into another Mideast war meant the United States never had the capability to shape such an outcome. Its increasingly marginal role in recent months means it could have even less capacity to help shape Syria's future and safeguard vital American interests, such as Israel's security and fighting the Islamic State group.
On the other hand, Obama hands the baton to Trump without any large-scale military or diplomatic engagement in Syria. The president never wanted to own the conflict, which has killed up to a half-million people and prompted millions to flee as refugees. And his reticence to intervene at least means Trump will have flexibility, which Obama didn't have in inheriting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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