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Russian Aid To Syrian Regime Designed To Shift Focus From Ukraine


The United States has been expressing alarm over new Russian military aid that's propping up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But while the U.S. says Russia is on the wrong path, it's also sending signals that it's open to a dialogue with Russia's military about this, and some experts think that's what this is about. Russia has been isolated over its actions in Ukraine and now wants to be taken seriously when it comes to Syria. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Carnegie Endowment's Dmitri Trenin says Russia is beefing up its military aid to help Bashar al-Assad hand on to territory he controls, at least along the Mediterranean coast where Russia has a naval base and appears to be building up an airbase.

DMITRI TRENIN: The Russians will contain providing a lot of hardware to the Syrian's military advisors, technicians, crews to operate weapon systems, and I think, ultimately, Russian pilots may be sent to the region.

KELEMEN: There's a diplomatic reason for this show of force, too, Trenin says, pointing out that Russian president Vladimir Putin will attend the U.N. General Assembly this month for the first time in a decade. And Trenin says the Kremlin leader wants to shift world attention from Ukraine to Syria.

TRENIN: Where as Putin has been saying, all the time, core Russian and U.S. interests and European interests are very similar, and it's only misguided U.S. policies that prevent fruitful collaboration against a common enemy.

KELEMEN: The Russian's say they are in Syria to fight extremist groups, but the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, argues it is Assad's atrocities that are fueling the rise of extremism and allowing groups like the Islamic State, or ISIL, as she calls it, to flourish.


SAMANTHA POWER: Certainly an interest we share with Russia is degrading and defeating ISIL. But the approach of supporting a regime that has helped fuel the rise of ISIL - that is a misguided approach, and it's not the approach that we will take.

KELEMEN: That's a case the U.S. has tried to make for years. A former U.S. envoy on Syria, Frederic Hof, says by now, the U.S. should have no illusions that Russia will help promote a political transition in Syria, which the U.S. says is key to resolving the war.

FREDERIC HOF: This is something of a real Houston-we-have-a-problem moment for the Obama administration.

KELEMEN: While Russia has made a decisive move to shore up the Assad regime, Hof, who's with the Atlantic Council, thinks it's time for President Obama to do something to protect civilians from Assad's barrel bombs, like those dropped on the northern city of Aleppo today.

HOF: The Pentagon has no shortage of options well short of invading and occupying Syria for really throwing sand into the gears of Assad's murder machine.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. and its partners could bring down a Syrian helicopter or two or create any aerial exclusion zone in the north. Ambassador Power was asked about that possibility of a no-fly zone at a lunch organized by the Christian Science Monitor this week. She would only say, there's no unity in Washington or at the U.N. on that proposal.


POWER: There are, on the Hill and everywhere else, a great plurality of views on what should be done. They really run the gamut, and that's true, also, I think, on the question of resettlement of refugees. It's true on the question of safe zones. It's true on the question of the anti-ISIL campaign.

KELEMEN: The Atlantic Council's Hof says he thinks the Russian strategy all along is to give President Obama a stark choice between, in Hof's words, Assad the barrel-bomber or the Islamic State. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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