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Jan 17, 12:42 PM EST

Iran's president welcomes Syria talks planned for next week


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AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that he hopes talks planned for next week can mark the beginning of the end of the civil war in Syria, where Tehran has provided crucial military and financial support to the government.

Russia's foreign minister meanwhile said Moscow would invite representatives of the incoming Trump administration to the talks in Kazakhstan, which could provide the first indication of how U.S. policy will change with regard to the six-year conflict.

The talks have been brokered by Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs the armed opposition. Turkey and Iran have traded blame for repeated violations of a Dec. 30 cease-fire that was intended to pave the way for the talks.

"We are happy that the cease-fire has been agreed to. This is a positive step on its own," Rouhani told reporters. "We have to apply efforts to keep the cease-fire."

He said it was important that the government reach an agreement with the opposition, but that only the Syrian people can choose their president. Assad's resignation, a key demand of the rebels, will not be on the agenda of the upcoming talks.

Representatives of nearly a dozen Syrian armed opposition groups have nevertheless said they will attend the talks, expected on Jan. 23, in order to reinforce the cease-fire and set up monitoring mechanisms for violators.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the attendance of the leaders of armed groups could make the latest talks more successful than previous rounds of negotiations with civilian opposition representatives held in Geneva, which led nowhere.

Russia has blamed the failure of previous talks in part on President Barack Obama's administration, which was excluded from the negotiations that led to the cease-fire.

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated he would like to pursue a closer partnership with Russia in order to battle the Islamic State group and other extremists, but he has also adopted a tough stance against Iran.

Lavrov said he hoped Russian and U.S. representatives could discuss efforts to combat terrorism during the meeting in Astana.

Rouhani did not mention the attendance of U.S. representatives, but Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted by the semi-official Tasnim news agency as saying Tehran did not think they should be invited.

An emerging U.S.-Russian alliance against IS could face an early test in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, where the extremists are waging a major offensive against the last remaining pockets of government control.

IS fighters launched a multi-pronged offensive over the weekend, and on Monday cut the government-held area in half. The extremist group, which controls most of Deir el-Zour province, has besieged the provincial capital since 2014.

Russia has been carrying out airstrikes in support of Assad's forces since September 2015, but has mainly attacked Syrian rebels rather than IS. A U.S.-led coalition has been attacking IS in Syria since 2014, but is not coordinating its efforts with Damascus.

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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