Russia opposed the inclusion of Australia – which is participating in airstrikes against Isis – in talks involving 20 countries or regional groupings
Australia was excluded from talks about resolving the Syrian conflict after resistance from Russia, according to government sources.
A meeting in Vienna on Saturday included representatives of 20 countries or regional groupings, including the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the European Union, the Arab League and the United Nations
But Australia – which is playing a significant military role by participating in airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria – was not part of the talks occurring under the umbrella of the International Syria Support Group.
The foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, asked the United States why Australia was not invited to the first round of talks in October, according to a report published by the Conversation late on Sunday.
While the US supported Australia’s inclusion in the November meeting, Russia opposed the participation of Australia and Japan, the report said.
Australian government sources have since confirmed the accuracy of the report to Guardian Australia.
The former prime minister, Tony Abbott, took a hard line against Russia after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine last year, illustrated by histhreat to “shirtfront” the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at the G20 meeting in Brisbane.
The Conversation’s chief political correspondent, Michelle Grattan, reported that the dispute was not thought to be a factor in Australia’s exclusion from the talks. Instead she suggested Australia and Japan’s attendance had been entangled in a Russian-US power play.
The participants in Saturday’s meeting in Vienna backed a ceasefire and set a 1 January target for the start of formal negotiations between Syrian government and opposition representatives. They agreed that “Da’esh [another term for Isis], Nusra and other terrorist groups … must be defeated”.
The meeting foreshadowed “a Syrian-led process that will, within a target of six months, establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, and set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution”. Free and fair elections would be held within 18 months according to the communique.
The other participants in Saturday’s meeting were China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Turkey and United Arab Emirates. They plan to meet again next month.
The US and Russia made further progress in bilateral talks on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Turkey on Sunday, with Barack Obama and Putin reaching consensus on the need for “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition”.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said he welcomed the “good signs coming out of Vienna” and indicated there could be a role for Australian peacekeepers in Syria in the event of a political settlement.
He repeated his previous calls for a political solution in Syria that included a transition from the leadership of the president, Bashar al-Assad, “to a government that has broad support and a restoration of a peace”.
Turnbull, who is attending the G20 summit, said on Sunday that a political solution would result in “a greater unity of purpose” and make it “less challenging” to defeat Isis. He foreshadowed further discussions with allies about Australia’s military contribution.
Australia’s defence minister,Marise Payne, said the government would consider the situation on Turnbull’s return from overseas and would seek advice from senior defence officials.
Payne said the defeat of Isis in Iraq and Syria remained “of primary importance”. Asked about the idea of Australian peacekeepers, Payne said such a step was “some way off”.
“Obviously these matters have to be considered very, very seriously in the cold harsh light of day and those discussions commencing in Europe and in part at least in Turkey around the G20 table now are very important aspects of that,” she told the ABC on Monday.
“We’re making the second-largest contribution at the moment … and if we are to enhance that or to change that in any way that will be a considered step by the Australian government.”
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, said he had spoken to Turnbull by phone on Sunday and their political parties would continue to work together on national security issues.
Shorten told reporters in Darwin on Monday that Australian military members were “doing an excellent job” in Iraq and Syria.
“Labor will be guided by the best military and defence and strategic advice,” he said when asked about any expanded role.
The Labor leader congratulated the French government for stepping up airstrikes in Syria. French fighter jets targeted the Isis stronghold in Raqqa on Sunday, two days after the group claimed responsibility for coordinated attacks in Paris that killed more than 130 people.
“Obviously France is showing the terrorists they won’t take any of this terrible behaviour sitting down and the French have already retaliated and I say good on them,” Shorten said.
Australian fighter jets have been carrying out airstrikes against Isis targets in Iraq since late last year.
In September this year, the government approved the expansion of these airstrikes to include Isis targets in Syria, while also agreeing to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees. It was one of the government’s final decisions before Turnbull ousted Abbott as prime minister.
On Monday Bishop announced Peter Tesch, a former ambassador to Germany, would become Australia’s top diplomat in Russia from January.
The minister said the appointment came “at a challenging juncture in Russia’s relations with Australia and many other countries, as we seek to resolve conflict in eastern Ukraine and Syria and pursue justice for the victims of MH17”.
By Political Correspondent, Daniel Hurst – The Guardian