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Russia Holds Center Stage In Syrian Peace Talks


We're going to begin the program in Munich today, where Secretary of State John Kerry has been working with Russia and other countries on plans to jumpstart peace talks over Syria and to get desperately needed aid to people there. It's a reminder that Russia may have been isolated over its actions in Ukraine, but now it's right back to the center of international diplomacy - at least when it comes to Syria. NPR's Michele Kelemen is in Munich and has this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There was a telling moment when several foreign ministers were asked if they think the fighting in Syria will stop long enough for a peace process to get underway. Russia's Foreign Minister gave it a 49 percent chance; British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond put it this way.


PHILIP HAMMOND: Frankly, it depends on what Russia wants. It depends on what Russia wants.

KELEMEN: Russia came under fierce criticism here at the Munich Security Conference for a bombing campaign in Aleppo that has driven tens of thousands of Syrians to flee for their lives and for propping up Bashar al-Assad's regime. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov brushes aside that talk.


SERGEY LAVROV: You should not demonize Assad. You shouldn't demonize anyone except terrorists in Syria. And the humanitarian issues must be resolved through cooperation.

KELEMEN: He says that's what the agreement reached here in Munich should be about - a partnership. Though, he says, so far, the U.S. has been reluctant to cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorists in Syria. U.S. officials have suggested that's possible only if aid starts to flow to cities under siege and if Russia stops bombing the more moderate rebels - those who Secretary of State John Kerry wants to be part of negotiations on Syria's future.


JOHN KERRY: Because obviously, if people who are ready to be part of the political process are being bombed, we're not going to have much of a conversation.

KELEMEN: Russia has some conflicting goals in Syria. It's not just about propping up its ally Assad, according to one of the analysts here for the conference, Angela Stent. She's written a book about U.S.-Russia relations called "The Limits Of Partnership."

ANGELA STENT: If Russia could be called a partner with the United States and its allies in working together in Syria, I think that's one of the goals they have to be part - recognized as part of an international coalition, which really means the complete end of their isolation post-Ukraine.

KELEMEN: Russia certainly didn't look isolated this week as it took center stage in the talks on Syria. Stent says, the challenge going ahead is to make sure Russia follows through on its agreement to push for a pause in fighting and more humanitarian access.

STENT: We have to think about what happens if this doesn't work out. And obviously, that's a huge challenge in Syria is to have a plan B and to see how we can end the terrible humanitarian catastrophe there and, you know, put an end to the civil war and if we don't - if we don't have Russian buy-in on it. So we're in a very difficult position.

KELEMEN: Another expert here at the conference, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, says the Russians have shaped the diplomacy through their military actions. So the U.S. plan B could be to get more involved on the ground and create safe zones for civilians.

RICHARD N. HAASS: The U.S. impact or influence is not going to be a function - and I don't mean this with disrespect - it's not going be a function of what John Kerry does, rather John Kerry's success or lack of it will be reflection of what the United States does.

KELEMEN: And he criticizes the U.S. for not living up to its rhetoric on Syria. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, 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.