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World

U.S. Formally Suspends Talks With Russia On Syria

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Obama administration has given up on working with Russia to resolve the conflict in Syria. The diplomacy collapsed as Syria and its Russian allies increased airstrikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo. Now the White House has to come up with a plan B. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry's aides say he didn't make this decision lightly. He's been trying for weeks to work with Russia on a plan to cooperate in the fight against terrorists in Syria but said Russia first had to use its influence with President Bashar al-Assad's regime to ground the Syrian Air Force and break the chokehold on Aleppo.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says Kerry tried but Russia had different ideas.

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JOSH EARNEST: He was tenacious and dogged in those efforts. And the president was relying on his advice in determining when it was no longer fruitful to engage in conversations. And I think pretty much everybody had concluded, after the behavior we've seen from the Russians over the last couple of weeks, that there's little, if anything to be gained from continuing to talk to them about this.

KELEMEN: The U.S. military is keeping open its channel of communication with Russia to make sure U.S. and Russian aircraft and personnel stay clear of each other in Syria. The U.S. has been targeting ISIS there. The Russians started their intervention last year, saying they're going after terrorists too, including an al-Qaida-linked group in Aleppo.

But Earnest says Russia has been bombing hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in areas held by Assad's opponents.

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EARNEST: Well, here we are a year later, and Russia standing alone with Iran trying to prop up the Assad regime while the rest of the international community rebukes them for the tactics that they have used inside of Syria.

KELEMEN: Administration officials have said they're looking into other options now to try to resolve a complicated civil war that is fueling the rise of extremism in the Middle East. They're reluctant to say whether they would, for instance, respond to Turkish calls for a no-fly zone or look the other way if the Saudis funnel more weapons to the rebels to defend themselves against the Assad regime.

Here's how State Department Spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau deflected questions about a plan B in her briefing today.

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ELIZABETH TRUDEAU: We're aware that partners and allies are taking a look at a number of options. We remain in close contact with them.

KELEMEN: While the U.S. was withdrawing personnel that had been sent to coordinate with the Russians, the Kremlin too was calling off cooperation on another key matter, nuclear security. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree today suspending a post-Cold War agreement to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. Russia said it was in response to what it calls a series of hostile steps by the U.S.

The White House called it disappointing, saying it thought non-proliferation was a joint priority between Russia and the U.S. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.