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Plans Proceed For Another International Meeting On Syria


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama got a warning this week about Syria. It's a warning that the country's civil war seems unlikely to end very soon on its own.

GREENE: The Obama administration has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go, but they've been reluctant to use force. Divisions in the international community have made it difficult to use diplomacy. Ideally, the U.S. might hope Assad's government will simply crumble - as governments have in other Arab nations.

INSKEEP: But analysts say Assad is instead gaining ground. And British Prime Minister David Cameron - while on his way to a meeting with President Obama yesterday - agreed the rebels are not winning.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: It is not looking promising, the idea of ending this by the, as it were, revolt from below. I think we've got a better prospect, now it looks like a stalemate, of trying to accelerate the moves of political transition from above.

GREENE: That was David Cameron speaking yesterday on MORNING EDITION. He called for a new diplomatic effort for outside nations to push for a transitional government.

INSKEEP: Syria's war has left tens of thousands dead and turned millions into refugees.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the options now.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Cameron came to Washington after what he describes as a very good meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And while he acknowledges that Putin doesn't approach Syria in the same way, Cameron says everyone has a common interest in stability.

CAMERON: We can all see that the current trajectory of how things are going is not actually in anybody's interest, and so it is worth this major diplomatic effort to bring the parties to the table, to achieve a transition at the top in Syria so that we can make the change that country needs.

KELEMEN: Last June, world powers met in Geneva and agreed on the need for a political transition in Syria, but Russia continued to give diplomatic cover to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now there are hints of a change in Russian thinking and President Obama is hoping for more consensus at the next Geneva talks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The entire world community has an interest in seeing a Syria that is not engaged in sectarian war, in which the Syrian people are not being slaughtered, that is an island of peace as opposed to, potentially, an outpost for extremists.

KELEMEN: Russia has been worried about the rise of extremists among Syrian rebels and the dangers of spillover to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. But getting the Russians on board for a new diplomatic push was the easy part, says Mona Yacoubian, a Syria expert at the Stimson Center.

MONA YACOUBIAN: Now we have certainly radical elements on the ground, including those associated with al-Qaida on the one hand, and you also have deepening sectarian tensions that suggests that while you may end up bringing some parties to the table, it's still far from clear that those parties will be able to in fact wield significant influence on those who are fighting out the battles on the ground.

KELEMEN: It also won't be easy to figure out which countries should be on the invite list to the next Geneva conference, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

ROBERT MALLEY: Having the Russians there, having the Americans, the French, the U.K. and Arab countries and Turkey will make sense, but what about the elephant in the room - or in this case maybe not in the room - Iran?

KELEMEN: Iran is backing the Assad regime in a conflict Malley says looks increasingly like a regional proxy war. He says diplomats will have to figure out some way to persuade Iran to be part of a solution. And that's just one of a thousand reasons for pessimism, Malley says.

MALLEY: From probably opposition reluctance to attend to less than full-fledged Russian commitment to a real transition, to the fact that many of the opposition's allies in Syria have very different objectives in mind, to the fact that Bashar al-Assad's regime itself seems to be doing far better today than a month ago and has no incentive one can think of for giving up precisely the time when the tide appears to be turning in its favor.

KELEMEN: While chances of a diplomatic solution are slim, Mona Yacoubian says the alternatives aren't good.

YACOUBIAN: The U.S. and others providing lethal assistance to armed groups in Syria, targeted air strikes, all the way up to a no-fly zone, I think all of those options will be very much on the table and will likely be the fallback in the event that diplomacy fails.

KELEMEN: British Prime Minister Cameron is already pledging to double the aid his country gives to rebels, promising to ship in armored vehicles, power generators and body armor. He says there won't be a political solution unless the opposition can withstand the onslaught and convince Assad he can't win this militarily.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.