PARIS — The Syrian government has told Russia it may be prepared to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to certain besieged areas, specifically a suburb of Damascus where 160,000 people have gone without assistance for a year, US and Russian diplomats said Monday.
With an international peace conference on Syria fast approaching, diplomats have been discussing steps that might be taken to alleviate the suffering in the country and set a positive tone for the meeting, which is to begin Jan. 22 in Switzerland.
In addition to localized cease-fires that would open up aid corridors to besieged towns, the possible measures include prisoner exchanges between the government and rebels and stopping the government’s bombardment of Aleppo.
Given the wide gulf between President Bashar Assad and his opponents, and the similarly stark differences between Russia and the United States, such “confidence-building” measures may emerge as the only tangible outcome from the conference in the near term.
Even so, such measures are not yet assured. The Syrian government has used the denial of food to try to subjugate its opponents.
But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday he had spoken to the Assad government, which indicated that it would support humanitarian access in certain areas. Russia has been a major supporter of Assad.
“We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a cease-fire. Maybe a localized cease-fire beginning in Aleppo,” Kerry said after meeting with Lavrov. He said the regime may be prepared to open up other areas, including East Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.
Kerry also said he had been assured by the Syrian opposition that it would be willing to undertake prisoner exchanges. Lavrov told Kerry it was possible the Assad government would agree to the localized cease-fires and prisoner exchanges as well.
Lavrov confirmed to reporters that aid corridors had been discussed but stressed that rebel fighters would need to abide by them as well. “When we talk about the need for a cease-fire, to unblock as many settlements as possible to provide humanitarian access, all those factors are taken into account,” he said. “We do not want a cease-fire which would be used by terrorist groups, because that would be against the interests of everyone.”
It was unclear how a localized cease-fire would be achieved in Aleppo, where rebel groups are fighting among themselves. The death toll in the insurgent infighting, which began more than a week ago, now exceeds 700, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that tracks the conflict through sources on the ground in Syria.
Assad’s opponents are skeptical of any promises of aid access from the government. Rebels accuse the Assad government of using starvation as a weapon of war amid dozens of reported deaths from malnutrition. The government says it cannot reach those areas because of security concerns.
There was no agreement among the United States, Russia, and the United Nations on another issue pertaining to the peace conference: Whether Iran should attend.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on the Syria crisis, told reporters that both he and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, believed that Iran should participate. But Brahimi added that invitations to the meeting required a consensus among the United States, Russia, and the United Nations, alluding to US opposition to the idea.
Kerry, however, repeated the longstanding US position that Iran should not be invited until it formally embraced the goal of the meeting: the establishment of a transitional body “by mutual consent” that could govern Syria if Assad yielded power.
“Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria,” added Kerry, who noted that Iran had encouraged Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, to join the fight on the side of the Assad government and had sent weapons and members of its own Quds Force to Syria. “No other nation has its people on the ground fighting in the way that they are.”
In a separate development Monday, rebel spokesmen said an extremist militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has retaken significant parts of the territory in northern Syria that rival insurgent groups wrested away last week.
There were signs, too, that government forces were beginning to exploit the rebel infighting, pushing toward the approaches of insurgent-held eastern Aleppo.