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Kerry says U.S. encouraging Astana talks on Syria as step to peace

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is encouraging Syria peace talks being prepared by Russia later this month in the Kazakh capital Astana and hopes they will produce a step toward peace, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Middle East peace at the Department of State in Washington December 28, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

“We’re encouraging a meeting in Astana. We hope that could produce a step forward,” Kerry told reporters during his final news conference at the State Department.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Dec. 26 that Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al Assad had all agreed to hold the talks in Astana although no date has been set.

Kerry said he had talked to U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the

objective remained “to get to Geneva where the real meat of the talks is going to take place.”

But Kerry said a Dec. 30 ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey had run into difficulties with numerous violations.

“The fighting is continuing, it’s difficult and the Assad regime seems to be playing the same card that it was playing previously,” he said.

After several failed ceasefire attempts brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, the United States remained out of the latest Syrian talks. It is unclear whether the United States will attend the Astana talks.

Russia and Iran both back Assad, but Turkey, a NATO member, has long made clear it would prefer that Assad step down. Ankara, however, has moderated its rhetoric on Assad in recent months and Lavrov said all three countries agreed the priority was to fight terrorism rather than to remove the Syrian leader.

With two weeks left in the Obama administration, Kerry said it was unclear what the new administration’s approach to foreign policy would be under President-elect Donald Trump.

“Nobody can predict what choices this administration is going to make. I don’t know. I don’t think you do,” said Kerry, “The question a lot of people are asking is: Do they know? We’re going to have to wait and see what choices they make.”

Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon Mobil, as secretary of state although it is unclear when his confirmation hearing will take place.

While Tillerson appeared to win over Republicans during meeting at the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, Democrats want more time to consider his record, especially his ties to Russia.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Eric Walsh and Sandra Maler