After three years of civil war, Syria has reached its deepest desperation yet — an escalating death toll from intensified fighting, new waves of refugees, threats of increased arms supplies to opposition and government forces and a negotiating process at Geneva that was suspended last week with no date for renewal. The veteran United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, was right to apologise to the Syrian people for failure — an oblique way of blaming both sides and their international backers for letting Syria’s citizens down.

Yet, all is not bleak. Whereas the government team went to Geneva determined to talk only of stopping terrorism — by which they meant all armed opposition — and the rebels only wanted a formula for President Bashar Al Assad’s removal, Brahimi seems to have achieved a consensus that there are two key issues. One is to achieve local ceasefires, leading gradually to a countrywide halt in fighting. The other is to form a transitional government. The Geneva talks failed to get agreement on which order to deal with the issues or whether to have smaller teams to discuss each one simultaneously. But Syria’s warring sides were in one room together for the first time, and the hope must be that, during the pause for reflection that Brahimi has called for, each side will commit to returning to handle both issues together.

US and Russian pressure will be the key. Rather than trying to score propaganda points or blame the other for Geneva’s lack of progress, Washington and Moscow need to build on the common ground between them. Neither wants the total collapse of Syria’s institutions or its secular multicultural tradition. Neither wants the victory of Islamic fundamentalists allied to jihadi extremists. Neither wants a sectarian bloodbath in Damascus on the pattern of Baghdad eight years ago. A Syrian alliance, in which the secular opposition activists who started the revolt against Al Assad in 2011 join forces with the regime against the foreign jihadists needs to be sketched out. This can only be done under two conditions. One is that a transitional government is indeed formed, as outlined in the original Geneva communique of June 2012. Syria’s government should not fear it, since it spells out clearly that it must be a coalition of both sides, including representatives of the current regime as well as of the opposition. Transition does not mean surrender by the regime or victory for the rebels.

The other is that outside powers curb their arms supplies and the inflow of foreign fighters. Rather than trying to exclude Iran from discussing solutions for Syria, the US should encourage Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to form a contact group to think about demilitarising the conflict and ending their proxy wars. It would also make sense for the US and Russia, as the main backers of the two sides, to join the Geneva process more intensely by holding five-way sessions alongside Brahimi and the Syrian teams. As well as putting greater pressure on the negotiators, this will open the door to resuming a direct US channel to the Syrian government, now that it is clear that the initial effort to undermine it by isolation has failed.

Some criticise the regime for not sending its top military and security people to Geneva. They see this as a sign that Al Assad is not ready to accept the formation of a coalition government. This looks right, but it may be that more discreet back channels will have to be found to engage the top echelons of the regime without whom no compromise is likely.

In spite of Geneva’s stuttering, the framework for an eventual political deal can be glimpsed. The priority now is to avoid a public blame game, keep the Geneva process alive and not add more fuel to the military fire.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd