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At Munich Meeting, Kerry To Push For Cease-Fire In Syria


The latest reports from Aleppo, Syria tell the story of a city where life has become unbearable. Aid workers say the water supply to Aleppo, home to some 2 million people, is no longer functioning. Russian planes continue to bombard the city in support of a Syrian regime offensive. And that is all the backdrop to frantic diplomatic efforts unfolding today in Munich. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Munich, meeting with his Russian counterpart and other stakeholders in this complex civil war. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Kerry, and she's on the line now. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I gather Kerry has been trying to push for a cease-fire. Is that his specific goal for this gathering in Munich?

KELEMEN: That, and just getting humanitarian access to places like Aleppo. What he's been trying to do is get all the countries that have a stake in Syria to push their proxies toward a political settlement so that everyone can focus on ISIS. But even before peace talks were to begin, they were put on hold. The U.S. says it was the Russian offensive around Aleppo that caused that to be pushed off. The Russians just brush off that criticism. They say they're there fighting terrorists. And the Syrian opposition feel abandoned by the U.S. They want to see Kerry do much more to stop Russia's military offensive, which they say is creating a whole new humanitarian crisis in a war that's already uprooted millions of people, and where siege and starvation are weapons of war. So there's a lot of pressure here on Kerry to deliver something today, at least in terms of humanitarian access.

KELLY: And we said the Russians are there at the table. Have they announced what their goals are for this meeting?

KELEMEN: Well, what they're proposing is a cease-fire, but one that doesn't start until March 1. Officials keep reminding the Russians that they signed on to a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for peace talks and that calls for humanitarian access. So Kerry's having a lot of meetings here in Munich with the Russian foreign minister, for instance, before the larger gathering of all the international stakeholders this evening.

KELLY: It sounds as though at various points in this conflict, there have been moments where the U.S. and Russia maybe were finding common ground. But it - they still have very different goals for what - the outcome they would like to see in Syria.

KELEMEN: You know, Mary Louise, I'd say from the start the Russians have been pretty clear that they don't see anyone that could replace Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. doesn't see the war ending as long as Assad's in power. When the Syrian government crossed the U.S. red line and used chemical weapons in 2013, the U.S. worked together with Russia to rid Syria of its declared stockpiles. The U.S. saw that as a sign that Russia would use its leverage when necessary. And the Russians saw that as a sign that the only way you resolve things in Syria is to work with the Assad regime.

KELLY: Well, and speaking of leverage - when Russians sent in war planes to prop up the Assad regime, how has that changed that diplomatic equation?

KELEMEN: Well, that really gave the Russians the kind of leverage that the U.S. doesn't have here and a clear sense of what they want to make sure Assad's regime survives. The U.S., on the other hand, is asking rebels to focus on ISIS and not Assad, and that's a very hard case to make as this war drags on and becomes ever more brutal.

KELLY: OK, thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen, tracking the diplomatic talks unfolding today in Munich. 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.