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New Opposition Leader Asks U.S. To Establish Safe Zones In Syria

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's now more than four years into the conflict in Syria and there is no diplomatic end in sight. A U.N. envoy is struggling to find a way back to negotiations, and here in Washington, a Syrian-opposition figure is once again trying to make his case that the U.S. should do more to help oust President Bashar al-Assad. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Khaled Khoja is the latest leader of the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition, and he seems to think that the U.S. is warming-up to the idea of creating safe zones in Syria.

KHALED KHOJA: At least there is no objection from the American side. The situation has been changed on the ground. We are gaining more ground and we need more protection now.

KELEMEN: He says he discussed this recently with Secretary of State John Kerry, who was, in Khoja's words, very positive about the idea. A State Department official says privately though that the U.S. position hasn't changed. Creating and enforcing no-fly zones would be challenging both militarily and financially, the official says. Still, Khoja seems determined. He's holding follow-up talks with Pentagon officials this week and telling them that the rebels to be trained by the U.S. can't only fight the extremist group ISIS as the U.S. wants.

KHOJA: We have been fighting ISIS from the beginning. We defeated ISIS from Aleppo toward Raqqa. But also we need to deal with the root causes of the extremism, which is the Syrian regime itself.

KELEMEN: As a Syrian-opposition coalition leader spoke to NPR in Washington, Amnesty International was releasing a report that describes the Syrian city of Aleppo as a circle of hell. The author of the report, Nicolette Boehland, says all sides are committing war crimes, especially the government with its barrel bomb attacks.

NICOLETTE BOEHLAND: This has been like documenting a horror movie. I can't say enough of the extreme nature of these weapons and the kind of injuries that they cause.

KELEMEN: One man told her that his uncle had been killed in a barrel bomb attack on a market in Aleppo and he could only find the victim's hand in the rubble.

BOEHLAND: We documented barrel bomb attacks that destroyed whole neighborhoods, mosques, schools. It's amazing the level of destruction that these bombs can cause.

KELEMEN: Boehland wouldn't weigh in on the opposition calls for no-fly zones, but says the U.N. Security Council should impose sanctions and take other steps to punish Syria for using these weapons in violation of a U.N. resolution. The Amnesty report says for the moment it seems the international community has turned its back on the civilians in Aleppo. The U.N. envoy, Staffan di Mistura, tried but failed to get a local cease-fire there. Now, he's trying something new - holding weeks of consultations in Geneva with anyone who has any influence in Syria.

STAFFAN DI MISTURA: When it comes to Syria, there is never a perfect moment for talks. Yet, this is no excuse, at least for the U.N., for us to wait while Syrian victims are reduced to statistics.

KELEMEN: He's invited dozens of Syrian-opposition groups and will consult with Iran, which has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition leader Khoja would like to see the U.N. envoy persuade Iran to agree on the need for a transitional government.

KHOJA: Almost half of the official Assad army are led by the Iranians. They are foreign fighters wearing the official army uniforms, so Iran is involved very much in the Syrian war.

KELEMEN: Khoja has been playing up Iran's role in Syria to get the attention of the Obama administration and of America's Arab allies that will come to a summit here next week. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.