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'Interesting ideas' as world powers agree to more talks on Syria

A meeting of the US, Russia and seven regional states has failed to reach an agreement on Syria. As the devastating conflict rages on, international actors involved agreed to more talks despite "different approaches."

International talks on Syria between the United States and Russia alongside regional actors ended on Saturday after more than four hours, with little sign that progress had been made to quell six years of fighting and advance a political solution to one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

After months of talks, few expected an immediate breakthrough as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with top diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan in the Swiss city of Lausanne, the first such meeting since a painfully negotiated ceasefire quickly broke down last month.

Kerry said the meeting was "exactly what we wanted" - a statement that testified mostly to rock-bottom expectations. The main result was pledges to resume contact on Monday. "Nobody wants to do this in a sloppy way," said Kerry, who recently accused Moscow of war crimes in Aleppo.

European powers did not attend the meeting but will meet separately with the United States in London on Sunday.

'Different approaches'

As the conflict - which has claimed nearly 400,000 lives and displaced millions of people - grinds on, Lavrov said the sides had discussed "interesting ideas," while Kerry said there was candid "brainstorming" that "might be able to shape different approaches." In the end, they agreed to keep on talking.

The top US diplomat also underlined that the direction of conversations was driven by the "urgency of Aleppo, the urgency of trying to find something that works other than military action." 

The main sticking points in the conflict continue to orchestrate a sustained ceasefire among a multitude of armed groups, separating Western-, Gulf-, and Turkish-backed rebels from recognized terrorist groups, opening besieged areas to humanitarian aid, and ultimately agreeing on a road map for a political solution in which international and regional powers have different views on the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the future of the country.

Watch video 00:32

Antonio Guterres, stressing the importance of ending the conflict in Syria

Consensus on 'IS'

The only thing that the various actors appear to agree upon is pushing back and defeating the "Islamic State," which is on the defensive in both Syria and Iraq, though far from finished.

The breakdown of the ceasefire negotiated between Washington and Moscow has been followed by a major uptick in violence in Aleppo, where government forces - supported by Iran-backed militia and Russian air power - are pressing an offensive to retake the eastern part of the city from encircled rebels of various shades and where some 250,000 civilians are trapped.

The ferociousness of the offensive has put international pressure on Russia to put a halt to the bombing as the regime aims to deliver a decisive blow to rebels in Aleppo.

Retaking the heavily destroyed city, Syria's most populous before the war, would in many ways be a Pyrrhic victory. Yet, it would increase the regime's political position in negotiations, turn the rebellion against him into an insurgency largely confined to the countryside of Idlib province, and deal a severe blow to rebels.

At that point, the US, Gulf states, and Turkey would need to decide whether to increase their support to rebels who are increasingly fractured, radicalized and Islamist, including with ties to al Qaeda. Such an escalation would put the rebel backers on a collision course with Russia, which has doubled down on its military involvement.

Indeed, Russia's Foreign Ministry reiterated Sunday that in order for a US-Russian ceasefire agreement to succeed and to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries, Syria's opposition must disavow any links to Jabhat Fatah al Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, and other "terrorist groups" affiliated with it. "At the same time, it should be understood that operations against terrorists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front will be continued," the ministry said.
Turkey, for one, has already softened its stance on the future of Assad and reconciled with Russia as it focuses on fighting IS and thwarting Syrian Kurdish ambitions, having intervened in northern Syria in August to carve out a safe zone along the border.

Since the uprising began in 2011, the conflict has developed into a multisided and complicated battle space of fronts within fronts, drawing in various rebel factions composed of Syrian and foreign fighters, regional rivals and world powers.

cw/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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