- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump’s expressed willingness to work directly with Russia could pave the way for direct talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the fight against Islamic State, the former head of the Turkish military said Wednesday.

Direct negotiations between the U.S. and Mr. Assad’s regime would have been unthinkable under the Obama administration, which has criticized Damascus’ brutal five-year campaign, backed by Russia, to quash rebel forces in the country and has insisted Mr. Assad must step down.

But potential talks by the incoming Trump White House, with Moscow’s blessing, could prove a major diplomatic breakthrough to end Syria’s civil war, former Chief of the Turkish Army’s General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug told a small group of reporters on a visit to Washington Wednesday.

“The only way out of this [war] is to establish a direct dialogue” with not only Syria and Russia, but with Turkey and Iran as well, Gen. Basbug said.

“The highest priority must be given to ending the civil war” in Syria, he said, adding “there is no other option to end this crisis.”

His comments came days after Mr. Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone for the first time since his victory last week.

The Trump transition team has laid out how the new administration plans to address the Syrian conflict, or any of the pressing national security matters facing the President-elect. But Mr. Trump’s outreach to Russia indicates the new occupant of the Oval Office may be willing to go much farther than President Obama in talking to all the parties fighting in Syria, Gen. Basbug said.

“I am more optimistic about the future of Syria” now than before the U.S. vote, Gen. Basbug said, noting the incoming commander in chief “will [likely] open links to the central Syrian government.”

When asked how the United States could open diplomatic talks with an Assad regime accused of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Syrians in a bid to crush rebel forces, he replied: “Today, it is Assad. Tomorrow it could be someone else.”

Any path to peace must include direct negotiations “with the legal, sovereign government in Syria,” he added, whether Mr. Assad maintains his hold on power or not.

Serving as the Turkish military’s second-in-command from 2002 to 2008, Gen. Basbug was promoted to the country’s top military officer that year, a position he would hold until his retirement in 2010.

In 2012 he was charged and convicted on terrorism charges and received a life sentence. The conviction was later overturned by the Constitutional Court of Turkey, which ruled that his legal rights were violated during the trial. He was released from prison in 2014.

His comments come a day after Russian forces launched fresh airstrikes on parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo held by opposition rebels, breaking a three-week lull in attacks against the city.

Moscow’s use of so-called bunker-buster munitions and cluster bombs — the latter of which are banned under the international rules of war — against rebel targets in Aleppo has decimated the city, prompting outcry from the U.S. and the international community.

Thus far, the Obama White House, which has offered support for pro-Western Syrian rebel groups, has refrained from intervening in the Aleppo campaign, saying Washington’s priorities are focused on driving Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the terror group’s so-called caliphate.

Turkey, a member of the U.S.-backed regional coalition currently battling the Islamic State, is waging its own war in Syria against Kurdish members of the People’s Protection Unit, also known as YPG.

The group, which is considered to be Washington’s main ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, is also the armed faction of the Kurdish Workers’ Party — a group deemed by Ankara to be on par with the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.

On Wednesday Turkish forces pressed their advance into Syria by launching an assault on the city of al-Bab, 50 miles south of Jarbalus, where Turkish troops first moved into the country.

Army Col. John Dorian, the top U.S. spokesman for the anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that American commanders will not provide air support for the advancing Turkish units. American warplanes had backed Turkey’s ground forces when they moved into Jarbalus in August.

Col. Dorian declined to give specifics on why U.S. and coalition commanders refused to provide air power for the attack on al-Bab. “This is a national decision that they made” to go into al Bab, he said, adding the move was not part of the coalition’s overall battle plan.

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