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Is Russia's Military Buildup In Syria A Good Thing?


Another international challenge right now is Russia's military buildup in Syria. It's happening just ahead of a major week on the diplomatic calendar - the U.N. General Assembly's high-level debate. President Vladimir Putin plans to speak there for the first time in a decade. He says his forces are in Syria to help the country's embattled president to fight terrorists. The U.S. argues that the Syrian president is part of the problem. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how diplomats are trying to bridge that gap.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: British-Syrian Dr. Rola Hallam says war crimes have become a shocking daily reality, and the international community must do something about this. That doesn't mean only going after the extremist group known as the Islamic State. It also means stopping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from bombing his own people and fueling extremism.

ROLA HALLAM: The government of Syria has been killing over seven times more civilians than ISIS. And unfortunately, the result of that is not just refugees, but this rise and rise of ISIS. They are two sides of the same coin.

KELEMEN: Hallam is looking for U.S. leadership to rally the U.N. Security Council around a solution, even though Russia's support for Assad complicates the diplomatic scene.

HALLAM: A few months ago, people thought that the Iran deal was probably impossible as well. But it goes to show, when there is political will to achieve something, that it can truly be achieved.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been warning Moscow that doubling down on its support for Assad is not the way to resolve the conflict. Valerie Szybala, who runs the Washington-based Syria Institute, says the U.S. needs to show Moscow more clearly that it's serious about protecting civilians.

VALERIE SZYBALA: It's going to take the U.S. doubling down, unless we really want to abandon the country to Russia and Iran and we're willing to cope with the history of another genocide.

KELEMEN: But while activists like Szybala see the Russian moves to prop up Assad as something to be countered, former U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar of Georgetown University sees room for diplomacy. He says the most urgent goal now is to tamp down the violence, and that means putting aside the debate over Assad.

PAUL PILLAR: One of the things that could make the already very bad Syrian situation even worse is a complete and sudden collapse of the regime. Over the longer term, an authoritarian, barrel-bombing regime in power in Damascus, obviously, is not the formula for stability. And this is one of the things that the United States and Russia, along with the other major outside players, need to discuss.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says Assad must go, though Secretary of State John Kerry has come to acknowledge that may not be anytime soon. Pillar also thinks that Russia is worried enough about extremism that it could be convinced about the long-term need for a political evolution in Syria.

PILLAR: There's plenty of room for both sides to fudge on their previous formulas and to talk about a common interest in trying to bring this conflict under control.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Kerry already seems to be trying to ease concerns about Russian aircraft and troops deployed to Syria's Mediterranean coast, saying they seem to be there for defensive purposes.


JOHN KERRY: For the moment, it is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents, basically, force protection.

KELEMEN: The trick is to make sure Russia stays focused on ISIS and doesn't do anything that further fuels the conflict. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. 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.
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