Syria Peace Conference Might Produce Temporary Ceasefire

Steve Inskeep talks to former State Department official Nicholas Burns about the Syrian peace talks which got underway Wednesday at a Swiss resort. No one thinks the conference will end the war but it could resolve issues like humanitarian aid and a temporary stop to the fighting.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's get some analysis of the Syrian peace talks from former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns. He's on the line today from London. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Does the moment seem right at all to make progress in these peace talks?

BURNS: It's a critical moment. I don't think that early progress is going to be possible, just because Syria - the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels, Russia, Iran, the United States, they're all disunited. They're all feuding with each other. But there is a moral imperative to act because the International Crisis Group says there are nine million Syrians of a population of 22.4 million who have lost their homes, 100,000 dead. So at the very least, if the Russians and the Americans can agree with the Syrian government to a temporary ceasefire - at least in parts of the country - and to let the United Nations and refugee aid agencies in to give help to people, that is at least a place where they've got a start.

INSKEEP: You're pointing the way toward a partial deal or a localized kind of deal. Is that what seems to be practical here?

BURNS: What doesn't seem to be practical is a full gauged, you know, settlement, where they agree that they're not going to fight anymore; they agree on the transitional government away from Assad. That's the goal on the distant horizon. But there's so much cynicism here. There's so much barbarism. There are new allegations of Syrian war crimes against its own citizens. And the Russians and Chinese are going to act to protect Syrian government.

So I think what the United States has to do - and I think what Secretary Kerry is going to try to do - is to say a long-range goal is that Assad has to leave; a new transitional government comprised of the various parties, and the various groups in Syria, will have to take power at some point. But in the immediate time the refugee situation has to be addressed urgently, because it's the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world today.

And that's where the moral imperative is. And I think that's where said Secretary Kerry is going to focus a lot of his energies.

INSKEEP: We heard from San Dagher of the exhaustion of the populace and even of the fighters, after the years of war. But, of course, the calculus of leaders may be a little different, because they're thinking in terms of their own survival. Is there any way that this desire for peace that you do here among the populace would begin to operate on one side or the other?

BURNS: I don't think you're going to see it, Steve, inside Syria, because this is a fight to the death between President Assad and the rebel groups facing him - particularly the jihadi groups, the al-Qaida type groups that have taken control of all of a lot of the rebel movement. And, you know, they don't play for compromise. They play to win. And that's why you see the Syrian government and the rebels fighting so intensely.

And so, what the outside powers have to do is try to influence them, and push them at least towards some kind of temporary cessation of the fighting. I think it's too much to ask out of this conference - it's not realistic - that a general cease-fire would take place. So perhaps a ceasefire in Aleppo or in other parts of the country, where you can create some zones that people can go to just to escape the fighting.

And for the U.S., they're facing all bad options because they can't live with Assad but the Russians will protect him. The president has said categorically the United States will not intervene militarily, and I think that's probably the right decision. But then again, we can't do nothing.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about the implications of what you're saying may be practical here, which is temporary ceasefires, localized ceasefires that might allow humanitarian aid to flow. But I'm wondering if there were such an agreement, if that would bolster Assad in power, because it's yet another agreement, somewhat like the chemical weapons agreement, that leaves him sitting there.

BURNS: Well, you know, the reality is, Steve - and this is the really difficult work - when you're dealing with diplomacy, is that if the United States is unwilling to intervene decisively against Assad - and we are unwilling to do that - then we're going to have to deal in the short-term with his government. It's the only way to get help to the refugees. It's the only way to begin to, at least, city by city or region by region basis, to begin to chip away at this war.

And so, you have to deal with him. You have to deal with the government. We detest him. But that's the short-term imperative to save human life.

INSKEEP: What if the talks produced nothing?

BURNS: You know, that could be the case, because, you know, the Iranians have been kept out this conference. So they're not at the table so they're going to be spoilers. They're going to be urging the Syrian government to be recalcitrant. If the talks don't produce anything, then what you've got to do with diplomacy is come back and back again and try to get, you know, try to get the minimum, the modicum of progress here.

And that's the record of over the last three years; nothing really good has happened but you can't give up trying to make it happen.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns is now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Ambassador, always a pleasure to talk with you.

BURNS: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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