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U.S. Wants Russia To Help With Goal Of Reducing Syrian Airstrikes

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia are urging the warring sides in Syria to salvage a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely. The two countries are the main players behind the truce, which has been violated frequently. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. is highly dependent on Moscow to make it work.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials say they carefully worded their joint statement with Russia yesterday with a clear goal in mind, to reduce the rate of Syrian airstrikes. This means Russia would have to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's air force. It's an appeal administration officials make daily, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest did recently.

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JOSH EARNEST: We continue to impress upon President Putin the need to use his influence with the Assad regime to get them to abide by the cease-fire, to the cessation of hostilities.

KELEMEN: And here's how State Department spokesman John Kirby often puts it.

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JOHN KIRBY: We know that Russia's influence can matter, that it does matter to the Assad regime because when we've seen them exert that influence, it has worked.

KELEMEN: Russia has an interest in keeping things this way, says Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.

NOAH BONSEY: And the Russians have obviously been stringing this out. The Russians are trying to deliver, it appears, the bare minimum necessary to keep the U.S. engaged.

KELEMEN: Bonsey says it's not at all clear that Russia either wants to or can persuade Assad to leave office, which is the Obama administration's stated goal. And the White House has been leery of getting more involved to tip the balance on the battlefield against Assad.

BONSEY: The U.S. administration does not want to escalate its role in the Syrian war. It's made that very clear. And so given those options that it's availed itself of, it really leaves the administration very dependent on Russia.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Russia share a common enemy in Syria, ISIS, and the U.S. thinks that Assad needs to move out of the way so that Syrians can stop fighting each other and turn their attention to ISIS. But Russia sees Assad as a key player, according to Fred Hof, a former U.S. envoy on Syria now with the Atlantic Council.

FRED HOF: I think their ultimate aim is to get President Obama to do some kind of a handshake with Bashar al-Assad, to form some kind of a common front against ISIS. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, this would be the diplomatic brass ring. He could tell his people in Russia that what he has done is he has frustrated the so-called American regime change agenda.

KELEMEN: Russia seems to be playing its hand well. The cease-fire it negotiated with the U.S. has a big loophole, allowing attacks on ISIS and on an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Nusra Front. And Hof says this effectively gives the Russians and the Syrians a blank check to strike any opposition forces and say the Nusra Front is present.

HOF: In northwestern Syria, the Nusra Front is pretty ubiquitous. It's got people spread all over the place. So almost anywhere you hit, there's likely to be somebody from the Nusra Front within shouting distance.

KELEMEN: In their joint statement yesterday, the U.S. and Russia said they're working on a, quote, "shared understanding" of where ISIS and the Nusra Front hold territory. That difficult job falls to experts on a joint task force haggling over maps of the shifting frontlines. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.