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In Syria, U.N. Promotes Local Ceasefires To Offer Relief From Civil War


Right now in Syria, a U.N. envoy is trying to pull off one of the toughest diplomatic assignments in the world. Staffan de Mistura is visiting the country, trying to promote the idea of local cease-fires to give civilians some relief in the devastating civil war. The U.N. envoy says he has a step-by-step plan. It starts with what he calls a freeze of the conflict around the city of Aleppo. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Standing amid the ruins of Homs, Syria, Staffan de Mistura told the BBC that he's trying to get all sides to agree on one simple thing.


STAFFAN DE MISTURA, BYLINE: No one is winning. Everybody's losing. Let's cool it down. Let's try to have, for once, a moment where we can show to the Syrian people there is a difference.

KELEMEN: The U.N. has tried for years to forge peace between President Bashar al Assad's regime and the various rebel groups, but the conflict has only become more complex. Now an extremist group, the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, is a major threat. So de Mistura told the BBC he understands this is no time to push for an overall peace plan.


DE MISTURA: Saying having a peace plan would be ambitious and delusionary but I do have - we do have - an action plan. And the action plan starts from the ground - stop the fighting.

KELEMEN: Today in Damascus he told reporters that he wants to start with Aleppo in Northern Syria and hopes to use a period of calm to bring in aid. Here in Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki sounded skeptical.


JEN PSAKI: We support any effort to save human life that would represent a shift in the Assad regime's approach, but we are also cognizant of the Assad regime's record on cease-fires.

KELEMEN: In Homs, Yarmouk and other places she said the Syrians have used humanitarian truces to retake control of rebel held areas.


PSAKI: Unfortunately, many local truces achieved thus far have more closely resembled surrender arrangements as opposed to genuine, sustainable cease-fire arrangements.

KELEMEN: Syrian opposition figures are also skeptical. Rafif Jouejati is a spokesperson for a network of activists in Syria known as the Local Coordination Committees. She also runs the U.S.-based Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria. She says Syrians aren't buying this latest U.N. proposal because they've seen the Assad regime take advantage of similar efforts in the past.

RAFIF JOUEJATI: As noble as it is to find a political solution - as noble as that is - we are dealing with a regime that has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs and cluster bombs and starvation campaigns. And political dialogue and discourse are not in the vocabulary of this regime.

KELEMEN: Jouejati says in the U.S. the narrative is shifting about Syria. U.S. airstrikes have targeted ISIS and other extremist groups and she says that's left others in the opposition feeling more abandoned than ever.

JOUEJATI: The only time the international community has truly stepped in is to combat ISIS. What about the Assad regime? What about chemical weapons? What about red lines that continually get crossed with no action?

KELEMEN: Jouejati says the Assad regime looks close to securing Aleppo and could take advantage of this U.N. cease-fire proposal to finish the job. The U.N. envoy insists that this will be different, freezing everyone in place. And de Mistura says he wants to make sure that a city he describes as iconic and a symbol of Syria's historical heritage doesn't end up in ruins like Homs. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.