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Syrian 'Cessation Of Hostilities' Agreement Met With Skepticism


The path forward in Syria is anything but clear, even after a diplomatic plan negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart. We'll hear from a Syrian doctor in a moment about the dire conditions there, and we'll explore the options the U.S. could take to help end the violence because this new plan may not do that. Now the U.S. and Russia have to convince the fighters to take a break, let in humanitarian aid and resume peace talks. And, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, there is widespread doubt about whether any of that will happen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry is on the defensive about the agreement he made with Russia and other stakeholders in Syria. Kerry says the plan provides for a pause in fighting to see how negotiations go, and that will help U.S. allies fighting the Syrian regime without freezing the regime in place, as the word cease-fire could imply.


JOHN KERRY: They wanted it called and defined as a cessation of hostilities. I wanted people to understand that that was very much in the line with their thinking and their hopes.

KELEMEN: That may have been the case, but one Syrian opposition figure, Salem al-Muslet, says he doesn't care what it's called. We spoke in the lobby of the Munich Security Conference, where the war in Syria is the dominant theme.

SALEM AL-MUSLET: What's more important to us is to save the lives, the remaining lives of Syrians there. No matter how it is and how they describe it, it's important to see our children alive, to see them go back to school without any threat from Russian airstrikes.

KELEMEN: And on that front, the deal seems to have a big loophole. The so-called cessation of hostilities doesn't cover airstrikes against ISIS or other terrorist groups, and the Russians say that is who they're targeting in Aleppo. But most Russian airstrikes have hit other areas, and al-Muslet says President Vladimir Putin's warplanes are killing civilians while the world watches.

MUSLET: What Russia is doing in Syria, it's not because Russia is strong but because the weakness on the other side. Putin is committing more crimes in Syria, and if we remain quiet in the world, the international community remain quiet, we will see more crimes done by Putin - the new Hitler now.

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister dismisses such criticism as simple propaganda. Sergei Lavrov says Russia plans to continue airstrikes, and the U.S. and Russia will set up a task force to go over maps to decide where such operations are needed. The U.N. envoy who's trying to broker a Syrian peace deal, Staffan de Mistura, is in wait and see mode.

STAFFAN DE MISTURA: Lavrov was part of the discussion, part of the commitment, and he announced himself that in one week time, we will have the cessation of hostility. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt, frankly, and since him and the Americans were quite determined in wanting this to work.

KELEMEN: Russia's goals, though, are different from the U.S. It's supporting Bashar al-Assad's government and doesn't seem to be moved by humanitarian concerns, as Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution points out. She's here for the conference and sums up the mood in the corridors this way.

FIONA HILL: This was just, you know, something that moved the dial a little bit, but that we haven't really achieved very much at all and that Russia has made itself the central element in all of the discussions here, but not by a positive stance but in fact, you know, through really bombing its way to the negotiating table.

KELEMEN: She says Russia might be winning in its short-term goal of keeping Assad in power, but she says everyone else is worried about the carnage in Syria, the refugee flows from the conflict and the rise of extremism. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.