Syrian rebel leaders 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 last year on the side of President Bashar al-Assad helped turn the five-year civil war in the regime’s favour.
The talks, they say, have focused on negotiating a deal to end the conflict in Aleppo, the country’s besieged second city.
“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 because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
While this is not the first time a rebel representative has met with the Russians, those familiar with the talks said it is the first time such a large number of opposition groups were involved — a sign of where they think they will have to turn to reach a deal.
Talks appear to have made little progress, but the fact they are taking place — without US involvement — underlines 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.
Ali Sheikh Omar, an Aleppo council leader, said politicians in rebel-held eastern districts have agreed a team they want to join negotiations with Russia over ending the fierce aerial assault that has flattened the city. Regime forces have made a significant breakthrough in the past week, captured more than a third of the rebel’s territory in the city.
“Negotiations are being done directly with the Russians because we all know at this point that Bashar al-Assad is nothing more than a provincial governor carrying out the orders of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said.
One rebel leaders denied such negotiations, while others declined to comment saying the issue was too sensitive. A western regional diplomat said he had no confirmation but had been seeking information about potential talks. He also had reports of a Russian military flight from the Syrian port city of Latakia, the site of one of Moscow’s military bases, to Ankara on November 24.
None of those who spoke about the negotiations would clarify if the rebels met the Russians face-to-face or indirectly, with Turkish officials mediating.
Asked about the talks, Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said: “Washington isolated itself. We’ve been negotiating with the [Syrian] opposition in Turkey for years — it’s not news.” A Turkish official did not respond to a request for comment.
For Washington, any such negotiations have ramifications far beyond Syria.
“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,” said Emile Hokayem, fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The politics of the region are being transformed and this happened under [President Barack] Obama, whether by design or by failure.”
Mr Hokayem has criticised what he views as Mr Obama’s half-in, half-out strategy in the Syrian conflict, saying it eroded US regional influence, citing several cases of regional leaders turning toward Russia.
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 meeting 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.”
However, he said it would be difficult for the opposition to meet Russian demands about removing their heavy weapons from the city, or disentangling themselves on the front lines from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group linked to al-Qaeda with whom they often fight alongside against Assad.
Tensions also remain high between Ankara and Moscow, especially after Turkey accused regime officials of striking their forces in Syria. Rebels say Ankara believes Assad forces received a green light from Moscow, which shows how fragile relations still are.
In parallel to the talks in Turkey, the US has been quietly pursuing negotiations to restore the ceasefire and aid deliveries to Aleppo, including talks with Russia through the Geneva process and regular phone conversations between secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
John Kirby, state department spokesman, said on Tuesday there had been no “tangible progress” in the talks about Aleppo. However, he added: “We wouldn’t still be at the table in this multilateral format if we didn’t think it was worth it.”
One opposition figure, when asked why he thought Russia would seek a deal with the rebels just as Mr Assad appeared to be winning the war, said he thought the objective is to raise its role in negotiations beyond the Middle East. The Russians, he said “are essentially saying: ‘screw you Americans’.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow and Mehul Srivastava in Istanbul