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Nation & World

Syria's Civil War Complicates Plan To Combat Islamic State

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we begin this hour at the United Nations where today the U.S. airstrikes in Syria are topping a crowded agenda. President Obama appealed for help in the fight against the militant group calling itself the Islamic State.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The airstrikes come against a complicated backdrop and a conflict that has divided the international community for years. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports now from the UN.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Few here are questioning the need for U.S. strikes against Islamic State militants. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the extremists that are wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria are a threat to international peace and security.

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BAN KI-MOON: We need a decisive action to stop atrocity crimes and frank discussions on what created the threat in the first place.

KELEMEN: But there are questions about what comes next. Ban's own UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, calls this a dangerous and delicate period. He wouldn't predict how the airstrikes might affect his job trying to find a negotiated solution to the Syrian Civil War.

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STAFFAN DE MISTURA: Fighting terrorism needs to be accompanied with a genuine process - a political process including all Syrians.

KELEMEN: At a side meeting to drum up more aid for Syria, European officials cautioned the U.S. to take care not to hit civilian targets. But they too saw the need to break the siege of the Islamic State, or ISIL, as the UK humanitarian chief Justine Greening calls it.

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JUSTINE GREENING: I think we've all been greatly concerned by the advance of ISIL and the pressure and the risks that that was posing on the ability of the humanitarian community to get aid to people. It's a breach of international law to stop humanitarian assistance from getting to civilians who are in need.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says it has 50 nations behind it, five of which are taking part in the military campaign against ISIS in Syria. More are helping in Iraq where the U.S. and its partners have a clear ally on the ground in the Iraqi military. In Syria, the picture is more complicated. The U.S. doesn't want to do anything that emboldens the President Bashar al-Assad. Its strategy depends on rebels who oppose both Assad and ISIS.

REZA AFSHAR: No army is going to manage fight on two fronts indefinitely without support - no army.

KELEMEN: That's Reza Afshar, a former British official now with the Independent Diplomat, a group that's been advising the Syrian opposition. He describes the U.S.-led strikes as a good start.

AFSHAR: It needs to be part of a comprehensive strategy that involves the defeating ISIS militarily, that involves dealing with the root causes which is principally the Assad regime and that involves putting in place moderate governance that will ensure that there can't be a resurgence of extremism.

KELEMEN: The former British diplomat says he's not worried that the airstrikes could help Assad - at least not if the U.S. and its partners coordinate their action with the rebel groups they say they support.

AFSHAR: I don't think at all that it would strengthen the Assad regime to be hitting ISIS targets. There are people on the ground who will be going after both. They will be going after Assad, and they will be going after ISIS. If you take ISIS out, that frees people up to take Assad out.

KELEMEN: Afshar's view of the strategy, though, seems far more expansive than what the U.S. has laid out so far and requires a united approach by regional players who have been backing various factions in Syria's complicated Civil War. President Obama told the UN he thinks the only real solution is for an inclusive political transition.

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OBAMA: Cynics may argue that such an outcome could never come to pass, but there is no other way for this madness to end, whether one year from now or 10.

KELEMEN: And he says regional powers need to settle their differences at the negotiating table, rather than through gun-wielding proxies. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.