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Top Diplomats Work To Revive Ceasefire In Syria


Diplomats are making another concerted push for peace in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry says they want to turn a shaky truce into a full-fledged cease-fire. But they could not even agree on a date to resume peace talks. The U.S. has found itself with little leverage. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry says no one can be satisfied with the situation in Syria today. Entire communities remain under siege, and a cease-fire that had been providing some relief has been violated repeatedly. But as things get more dire, he bristles at the idea that the U.S. has no leverage as long as Russia and Iran prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


JOHN KERRY: There is leverage in the fact that this war will not end for him or for his people without a political settlement. Everybody understands that. That is why the International Syria Support Group came together in the first place.

KELEMEN: Kerry was speaking in Vienna today after the latest meeting of that Syria support group, which he co-chairs with his Russian counterpart.


KERRY: Russia has made it very clear - to us at least - that President Assad has made a series of commitments to them. And we have yet to see President Assad live up to commitment number one, which is negotiate in good faith on the transition.

KELEMEN: That is a transition away from Assad. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, says the priority should be on fighting terrorism, not toppling Assad. And he denies that Assad has been ignoring Russian advice.


SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: "We're not supporting Assad. We're supporting the fight against terrorism," Lavrov says, adding that Russia doesn't see any more effective force on the ground other than the Syrian army.

That's a case Russia has been making for years, even though Assad's forces have only sporadically taken on ISIS. They've been focused mainly on fighting rebels and have continued to carry out mass atrocities against civilians. A former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, says the U.S. should be drawing some lessons from this.

ROBERT FORD: Russia either cannot or will not deliver major Syrian concessions, even on something as simple as humanitarian aid access.

KELEMEN: Diplomats in Vienna did agree on a plan to airdrop food when aid groups can't get to besieged communities by land. Ford told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that there needs to be consequences for anyone who blocks aid or violates the cease-fire.

But neither he nor the other experts at that hearing today sounded upbeat about the prospects for diplomacy as long as Russia and Iran help us Assad on the battlefield. Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, summed up the mood this way.


BOB CORKER: This is going to be settled in the manner that Russia and Iran decide it's going to be settled. And that pendulum swung when Russia stepped into the vacuum that we allowed to exist for so long.

KELEMEN: And the ranking Democrat on the committee, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, says the U.S. shouldn't have gotten its hopes up when Russia announced earlier this year that it would be pulling troops out of Syria.


BEN CARDIN: We all remember that and we thought maybe, well, looks like President Putin might be exerting his leverage over Assad to get a negotiated settlement. And yet here we are again. Putin's supposed pressure has receded and Russia's jets have resumed their bombing in violation of the very cease-fire that Mr. Putin helped broker.

KELEMEN: Cardin says a peace agreement that leads to an internationally negotiated transitional government seems as far away as ever. The U.N. is still trying to get the warring sides to the negotiating table. 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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