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Fighting Escalates In Syria Ahead Of Planned Cease-Fire


Syria, where what was a glimmer of hope just days ago, may already be fading. Last Friday, the U.S., Russia and other powers announced what they called a cessation of violence, a pause in the fighting in Syria. That politics is supposed to take effect later this week, but meanwhile, by some accounts, the fighting has only gotten worse. We're joined on the line now by James Jeffrey. He's a former ambassador to Iraq and to Turkey, now a fellow at the Washington Institute. Good morning, Ambassador Jeffrey.

JAMES JEFFREY: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: We're glad to have you on. Tell us, what's your assessment of this pause that was announced last week?

JEFFREY: Well, the pause, first of all, was not of the warring parties. It was from this group of 17 nations, the International Syria Support Group, primarily the U.S. and a very eclectic group of quasi-allies from Europe and the Middle East, on one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other. Then the agreement has to be sold to the warring parties, and that's why there is a week. But meanwhile, the Russians are going ahead with very heavy bombing. There's only been one relief convoy, and that was supposed to start immediately. The situation is so dire that the president had to call Putin yesterday while the vice president had to call the Turks, who are showing oppositions of the YPD, which is a Kurdish group across the border supported by both the United States and Russia. I know this must sound terribly confusing to your listeners. It's terribly confusing to us who've worked in the region for 30 years.

KELLY: An incredibly complicated situation. And as you say, it's unclear how much of a pause or cease-fire this really is if airstrikes by both Russia and other powers are continuing and as the warring parties, as you call them - we're talking ground forces - both the ones loyal to Bashar al-Assad and those fighting against him - they are not party to this pause at all.

JEFFREY: That's right. Now, the idea is to try to get them. The problem is the United States has little leverage on either the parties fighting or their supporters - Turkey, the Gulf states and so on - and has no way to pressure Putin. And this is what happens when we step aside and let the Middle East take its own directions. We now have a major Russian presence in the region. We have ISIS that is benefiting from all of this, as everybody that otherwise would fight them are fighting each other. And we have our allies disappointed with us and possibly risking a conflict with Russia, as we saw with the shoot-down of the Russian plane by Turkey. This is about as dangerous a situation as you could imagine, short of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

KELLY: Strong words there. When you say the U.S. has little leverage, what would you like to see the U.S. doing that it is not?

JEFFREY: The U.S. - the basic problem is it's a civil war and nestled with a war against ISIS, which is in both Syria and Iraq. The Russians have come in and decided to throw their weight on a total victory by the Assad forces over the vast majority of his own country. That's opposed by all of the states in the region - or all of them but Iran. And therefore, if the United States could organize the other states, set up a safe zone in the north, threaten effectively to equip the rebels more - better with better weapons and make this a stalemate, then you could get to the negotiating table, and there could be a real trade-off. Right now, we have no cards to play other than constantly reiterating there is no military solution. While there's no military solution in the eyes of the White House, there is definitely a military solution in the eyes of the Kremlin.

KELLY: You just raised the idea of a safe zone in northern Syria. That is controversial, not least because it would possibly require U.S. troops on the ground. How do you weigh the risk? I mean, the Obama administration has been reluctant to drag America into another quagmire in the Middle East.

JEFFREY: Every time we talk about troops, including special forces teams of 12 people going out with units fighting ISIS, we hear about a quagmire, another Iraq. One thing I'm sure of, because I work for him, is this president isn't going to get us into any Iraq-like quagmire with 150,000 troops. It would require some troops - probably a few hundred, a few thousand - in conjunction with the Turks, with local forces and with other people. And the main area - the main area would be along the Turkish border, where the people are basically friendly to us. This is not an occupation. It's not a long-term project to transform a society. It's simply to get a cease-fire.

KELLY: Former U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey speaking with us there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.