Syrian rebel leaders are due to hold talks in Ankara with regime ally Russia on Saturday in a bid to resolve the crisis in Aleppo.
Opposition-held territory in east Aleppo has been slashed by 40 per cent in recent days as Syrian troops have advanced, backed by Russian air support. After a week of steady regime advances, east Aleppo is close to becoming what UN officials term “one giant graveyard” and rebels are on the verge of a strategic defeat.
Yet as the noose tightens around east Aleppo, Syria’s most powerful backer may be reconsidering what happens next.
The city is unlikely to fall immediately, and the military force required to take and hold it may not be sustainable without incurring penalties on other fronts.
Syria and Russia on Thursday declined a United Nations request for a pause in the fighting to evacuate 400 sick and wounded as it emerged that a beloved social worker, who dressed as a clown to cheer up Aleppo’s traumatized children, had been killed in an air strike.
Talks between Russian diplomats and key members of the Syrian opposition on Saturday – reportedly the second in a week – suggest Moscow may be willing to negotiate an end to the fighting in Aleppo.
The talks will centre around a ceasefire and the opening of humanitarian corridors, in return for extremists leaving the city, according to reports.
“Russia has indicated it would be willing to accept aid access and local council control of the east, in return for JFS’s withdrawal,” said Syria researcher Charles Lister on Twitter, referring to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaeda aligned group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
“Russia’s key terms indicate a point of difference with Assad and Iran,” he said, adding that opposition groups had not rejected them. The talks, based in Ankara, which restored ties with Moscow in the summer, began on Monday.
It came as US officials conceded they have little to no chance of securing a diplomatic breakthrough to halt the five and a half-year civil war in President Barack Obama’s last weeks in office. Given Donald Trump’s promises of closer cooperation with Russia, the US has lost what limited leverage it had.
A separate source in Washington DC confirmed to The Telegraph that Russia had invited influential Islamist group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, an independent Islamist group, to attend.
A senior Russian diplomat said Moscow is regularly in contact with opposition figures but did not confirm the reported meetings in Ankara.
“We need no mediators with the Syrian opposition, we have direct contacts,” deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov told TASS.
A Moscow military expert played down reports that Russia was changing tactics so late in the game.
Vladimir Evseev, a military expert at the CIS Countries Institute in Moscow, said Russia had likely already taken a decision to finish the battle in Aleppo by force of arms.
“Aleppo will be liberated. After that there will probably be a movement to liberate the rest of Aleppo province then to secure Hama, Latakia and Idlib,” he said. “Northwest Syria could be completely liberated by spring.”
Mr Evseev said it was possible Russia, whose priority is “stability” rather than total victory, might consider a deal involving a political transition and de-facto partition in the South and East of the country after the Northwest is secure.
That could put Moscow at odds with Mr Assad, who has said he has no intention of stepping down, and Iran, Mr Assad’s other major ally.
Tags: 'humanitarian corridors', Ahrar al-Sham, Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad, Eastern Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Iran, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Fatah al Sham, JFS, Latakia, Russia, Russian air support, Salafi Islamist jihadist group, Syria, Syrian opposition, Syrian rebel leaders, Syrian troops, United Nations