The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has complained that the United States is sending contradictory signals on Syria. He may well have a point. On the one hand, Washington is part of an 11-nation group called the Friends of Syria which met in Qatar last weekend and promised military and other aid to the Syrian rebels. On the other, it insists that it favours sponsoring a peace conference in Geneva at a date yet to be decided. The prospect of a potentially conflict-changing influx of arms is hardly one to encourage the rebels to start talking to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Yet there is much to suggest the time is right for peace negotiations.
It has become clear that President Assad's overthrow is not as inevitable as has been widely assumed. Indeed, buttressed by lessons learned during his long term in power and the infusion of Lebanese Hizbollah fighters and Iranian advisers, he has seized the battlefield initiative. The rebels' defeat at Qusayr, close to the Lebanon border, was a heavy blow. Their shortcomings in planning and co-ordination were brutally exposed. Now, the regime's forces are striking at Aleppo, Syria's second city, which lies in the rebels' Sunni heartland.
The chances of successful peace negotiations were always remote when there was a military stalemate and both sides believed they could win. But the tide of war is now running the regime's way. As such, there is a far greater chance that pressure from the United States, in particular, could persuade the rebels to start talking. This would have the added benefit of sparing the Friends of Syria nations the ticklish task of deciding what rebel groups should receive arms.
The White House put itself on this course when it set the regime a red line, warning that it could not continue to stand by if chemical weapons were deployed. This month, it said it had high confidence that the nerve agent sarin and other chemical weapons had been used against the rebels. It was, however, no closer to establishing how it would distinguish moderate rebel groups from extremists, and ensure its arms did not, either directly or over time, fall into the hands of fundamentalists linked to al-Qaeda.
The conflict began as a popular Arab Spring-style uprising against a tyrannical government. But, increasingly, it has become a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Alawites, a Shiite sect that President Assad's family belongs to. The rebels have become more and more dominated by anti-Western fundamentalists who have little interest in establishing a secular democracy. The danger has always been that they would be the chief beneficiaries of a rebel victory, occupying the power vacuum left by a deposed President Assad.
Injecting sophisticated Western weapons into this situation is highly problematic. It is why President Barack Obama has, wisely, bided his time. His hand has now been forced. But the time when the West might just have intervened effectively in support of the rebels has probably passed. Events on the battlefield are moving quickly in favour of the regime. If Aleppo falls "within days", as Syrian state media insists it will, the rebels' morale will be further undermined. Further, their disunity is likely to become even more apparent as they come under intense pressure.
One set of talks in Geneva a year ago failed. Much has changed since then, however. It seems unlikely that belated Western military aid will quickly produce a scenario in which moderate rebels can attend peace talks as military equals. Washington's major focus should be orchestrating an accommodation between the regime and the rebels, and a reconciliation between Sunni and Shia.