The US and Russia have discussed a ceasefire in Syria and the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged rebel-held areas, as the civil war between rival rebel groups intensifies.
After a meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris, Mr Kerry said “we talked about the possibility of trying to encourage a ceasefire. Maybe a localised ceasefire in Aleppo.” Mr Lavrov said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to allow humanitarian aid to enter devastated rebel-controlled districts such as East Ghouta, a substantial enclave east of Damascus.
The Russians and Americans held discussions in the lead up to the Geneva II peace conference to be held on 22 January and their cooperation is a positive sign that the war in Syria might be brought to an end. But there are still differences over whether Iran should attend. Mr Lavrov said it should, while Mr Kerry said that could do so only if it agreed that a purpose of the Geneva meeting is to arrange for Mr Assad to leave power in Syria.
This looks increasingly unlikely as Mr Assad’s forces are advancing near Aleppo and the bitterly divided rebels are fighting their own civil war in which 700 people have died in recent days.
Isis launched a successful counter-attack over the weekend as it recaptured Raqqa on the upper Euphrates, the only one of 14 Syrian provincial capitals ever taken by the rebels, as well al-Bab and Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey. Local activists say that as many as 100 opponents taken prisoner by Isis have been killed. “About 70 bodies, most shot in the head, were collected and sent to Raqqa National Hospital,” a rebel militant told Reuters. “Many of those executed had been wounded in the fighting.” Prisoners shot included those from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group affiliated with al-Qa’ida, and the Sunni Jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham.
The internecine warfare in the highly fragmented rebel movement, which has as many as 1,200 different groups, will further discredit them at home and abroad. A principal reason why the US is now starting to agree with Russia on ending the war in Syria is its worry that al-Qa’ida-linked or other jihadi fighters are now the main rebel military force. The larger rebel units have been combining over the last two months mainly to receive finance and arms from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Saudi leader have said they want to organise an opposition that is directed at overthrowing Mr Assad and reducing the role of al-Qa’ida.
A central feature of the war in Syria is the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia who support opposing sides fighting there and also in Yemen and Lebanon. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have been essential supporters for Mr Assad, whom the US, Saudi Arabia and their allies had imagined would be easy to overthrow in late 2011 and in 2012.
The rebels were never strong enough to defeat the Syrian army themselves but believed it would be possible with help from US and Nato, airpower as happened in Libya. But the rise of Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups made the West increasingly dismayed at the idea they might become the new powers in Syria after the fall of Mr Assad. The recent advance of Isis in Anbar and Ninveh provinces in Iraq has increased the incentive for the US and its allies to try to end, or at least de-escalate, the war in Syria.
The US and Russia would have to bring Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on board to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. An open border with Turkey which recruits, arms and ammunition can cross without hindrance has been crucial for the success of the rebels in northern Syria.
Newly formed rebel groupings like the Islamic Front are reported to be Saudi-funded, and Saudi Arabia has been taking a stance more independent from the US since President Obama and David Cameron, lacking public support for another war, failed to launch air strikes after chemical weapons were used in Damascus in August. Nevertheless, the Saudis would find it difficult to act in direct opposition to American efforts to end the war.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. Cockburn has just won the Editorial Intelligence Comment Award 2013 for Foreign Commentator of the Year.