Syrian rebels are in secret talks with Russia to end the fighting in Aleppo, according to opposition figures, a development that shows how the US could become sidelined in some of the Middle East’s most pivotal conflicts.
Four opposition members from rebel-held northern Syria told the Financial Times that Turkey has been brokering talks in Ankara with Moscow, whose military intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad has helped turn the five-year civil war in the regime’s favour. Russia is now backing regime efforts to recapture the rebel’s last urban stronghold in Syria’s second city of Aleppo.
“The Russians and Turks are talking without the US now. It [Washington] is completely shut out of these talks, and doesn’t even know what’s going on in Ankara,” said one opposition figure, who asked not to be identified.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has provided limited training and weaponry for the rebels but had been hesitant to give forceful backing that could turn the tide in the opposition’s favour. President-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly signalled willingness to back Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s efforts to shore up the Assad regime, arguing they are working to stamp out Islamic extremists.
While the secret contacts are not the first time a rebel representative has met with the Russians, those familiar with the talks said it was the first time such a large number of opposition groups were involved.
However, the negotiations are riven by the tensions between Ankara and Moscow. Russia confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Putin spoke with Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the Turkish leader said he was seeking Mr Assad’s overthrow. A Turkish official, who asked not to be named, said talks over an Aleppo ceasefire were derailed after Mr Erdogan’s comments caused a Russian delegation to abruptly cut off talks while waiting for Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin to speak.
Though the talks have made little progress, they underline the shifting political dynamics in the Middle East. Regional actors now seem more willing to bypass Washington to seek out pacts with Russia, which is keen to develop the image of a rising power that can help broker such deals.
The fierce Russia-backed aerial assault has nearly flattened Aleppo. In the past week regime forces have made steady advances, capturing more than a third of rebel-held districts.
Yaser Alyoussef, spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades, a rebel group, called the talks “consultations, not negotiations”, adding they were ongoing but had so far been unsuccessful.
“There are consultations with the Russians through Turkish mediation to calm things down and bring in essential goods into the city,” he said. “Even if just a single bag of rice could come in. At this point everything is needed, from food and fuel to medicine.”
None of those who spoke about the talks would clarify if the rebels met the Russians face-to-face or indirectly, with Turkish officials mediating.
On Thursday Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Mediterranean town of Alanya, where he said Russia was willing to work with all parties in Syria. Asked about talks with the rebels, he told journalists: “We have never avoided contacts with any political opposition groups or with field commanders,” adding that Turkish officials often related information to them about the rebels.
For Washington, any such negotiations have ramifications beyond Syria. Emile Hokayem, fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, blamed the marginalisation of the US in the Syrian conflict on Mr Obama, who he said had shown a reluctance to entangle Washington in regional rivalries, leading Middle East leaders to turn to Moscow instead.
“The American approach to this conflict guaranteed the US less and less relevance, not just in the Syrian conflict but also the broader regional dynamics. There has been a loss of face and a loss of leverage,” he said. “The politics of the region are being transformed and this happened under Obama, whether by design or failure.”
Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who holds an eastern portion of the war-torn country, recently went to Moscow seeking military support. Turkey, having resolved its dispute with Moscow over the downing of a Russian jet, is believed to have reached an understanding with Russia that allows Ankara to deploy its forces in parts of northern Syria. Egypt and several Gulf countries have also increased communications with Russia, Mr Hokayem said.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the first meeting between Russia, Turkey and the rebels took place on Monday in Ankara, and another was likely on Saturday.
“Russia is hedging its bets. It would prefer to make a deal with the opposition,” he said. “If Aleppo were to fall, the Syrian regime would need so many troops to hold the city that its forces would be left thin elsewhere in the country — or dependent on Iranian help, which Moscow would prefer to avoid.”
In parallel to the talks in Turkey, the US has been pursuing negotiations to restore the ceasefire and aid deliveries to Aleppo, including talks with Russia through the Geneva process and regular phone conversations between John Kerry, outgoing US secretary of state, and Mr Lavrov.
One opposition figure, when asked why he thought Russia would seek a deal with the rebels just as Mr Assad appeared to be winning, said Moscow was “essentially saying: ‘Screw you, Americans’.”