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NATO, Russia Aiming For Syria Cease-Fire

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NATO, Russia Aiming For Syria Cease-Fire

Middle East

NATO, Russia Aiming For Syria Cease-Fire

NATO, Russia Aiming For Syria Cease-Fire

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Last year's war in Ukraine dominated the Munich Security Conference. This year, Russia's intervention in the Middle East has put the focus on Syria. Michele Kelemen speaks to NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon. This is a key moment for Syria. The U.S., Russia and others say they want a pause in fighting to allow for peace talks, and Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to make it happen.

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JOHN KERRY: If the international community and the Syrians themselves miss the opportunity now before us to achieve that political resolution to the conflict, the bombing, the anguish, is going to continue and all the talk that will take place here and has taken place to date will mean nothing except an increase in the cynicism of people of the world.

WERTHEIMER: Kerry was speaking today at the Munich Security Conference, and he had tough words for Russia, one of the players in these very complicated talks on Syria. Joining us now to talk about this is NPR's Michele Kelemen, who is in Munich. First of all, Michele, what was Secretary Kerry's message to Russia?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, it was basically this, Linda, that Russia needs to change its targeting in Syria. Kerry says that the Russians have been dropping dumb bombs in Aleppo, killing many civilians there, uprooting tens of thousands of people. He also says that Russia is targeting opponents of Bashar al-Assad, the very same moderate opposition groups who diplomats want to be part of negotiations on Syria's future. So the secretary says he's going to go work through all of this with Russia to try to change those targets so that the people who want to be part of the political process won't be driven away from talks by Russian airstrikes.

WERTHEIMER: But the deal Kerry worked out with the Russians does seem to have a lot of loopholes, right?

KELEMEN: That's right. You know, it's meant to stop the war between Bashar al-Assad and the more moderate rebels so that everyone can turn their attention to fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups. But U.S. officials acknowledge that these extremist groups are, in the words of one official, intermingled throughout the country. Russia, for instance, says it's targeting al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group in Aleppo. And they keep denying allegations that they're hitting hospitals, schools and civilian infrastructure in Aleppo, though most of the other speakers here at the conference and around the world say they are.

WERTHEIMER: Michele, let's listen to a bit of what Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at the conference this morning about the rebels and their demands.

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SERGEI LAVROV: To say unless all humanitarian problems are over, unless violence stops completely, we are not going to negotiate, is a road to nowhere.

WERTHEIMER: So does Lavrov think this diplomatic plan for Syria will work?

KELEMEN: In fact, he gave it a 49 percent chance that it'll work. He again brushed off criticism that Moscow is facing here, including many of Kerry's remarks. He said all sides have to work to get to a cessation of hostilities. And, you know, he said everyone should stop demonizing Assad and focus on ISIS. Soon after Lavrov spoke, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who was sitting next to him, says this all really comes down to what Russia wants and what Russia's going to do. He says if the Kremlin feels like it's achieved its military aims helping Bashar al-Assad regain some territory then it may be interested in de-escalating, but if not and if the bombing continues, the more moderate rebels aren't going to, you know, come to negotiations.

WERTHEIMER: It seems like the mood is very contentious at that conference. Is there anger at Russia for flexing its muscle?

KELEMEN: You know, it's funny. Last year, this was all about Ukraine and the need to isolate Russia over its actions there. Now Russia is really back at the center of things, especially on Syria. And you feel it here at the conference. The question is to what end? Russia can't really win this war. There are too many players and a lot of concern that as it drags on the refugee crisis is only going to get worse. ISIS is going to continue to thrive. And Syrians trapped in besieged cities will continue to die of hunger. Russia doesn't seem to be swayed at all by those humanitarian concerns.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Munich, thank you very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Linda.

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