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U.S., Russia Aim To Relieve Suffering For Syrians In Ceasefire Talks

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry says he and his Russian counterpart have reached a deal on how to try to bring a cease-fire in Syria. Kerry noted the history of failed plans in the Syrian civil war and warned the implementation of this new one is far from guaranteed. But he said the stakes are high.

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JOHN KERRY: There is emerging now a simple choice between war and peace, between human agony and humanitarian relief, between the continued disintegration of an ancient society and the rebirth of a united and modern nation.

CORNISH: NPR's Michele Kelemen is in Geneva following these talks and joins us now. And Michelle, Kerry and the Russian foreign minister spoke to reporters. What did they say was in this deal?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, they spelled out what Kerry's calling a far-reaching approach. He said it could be a turning point. First there's a plan to have a cease fire to begin with the Eid holiday on September 12. Kerry says Russia is also expected to use its influence with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt Syrian air attacks on opposition strongholds, attacks that Kerry says are to blame for most of the civilian casualties that we've been seeing.

And if all this holds, it's meant to boost prospects for peace talks. A seven-day period of calm will also pave the way for U.S.-Russian military cooperation in going after terrorist groups in Syria, and that's something new here.

CORNISH: You said if it would hold, and we know there was a major ceasefire deal announced in February. That one collapsed amid violations by the Syrian government and its Russian ally. How will this deal be any different?

KELEMEN: Well, as Secretary Kerry says, you know, it's a different format that they're having here, and this U.S.-Russian military cooperation is also meant to keep this working in a different direction kind of to give an incentive to Russia at least to stay onboard.

CORNISH: At the same time there were officials inside the U.S. government, particularly the Pentagon, hesitant about any deal with the Russians. What were their concerns?

KELEMEN: They've been really leery about sharing intelligence with the Russians and working with the Russians to target an al-Qaida-linked group that operates in some opposition strongholds like Aleppo. Kerry said the arrangement he made here is not built on trust. He says this Joint Implementation Center with the Russians is only going to begin initial discussions after a period of calm. So that's sort of a test to see if the Russians are serious about pushing for a cease-fire and halting Syrian air attacks.

Now, there was some last-minute diplomacy on this one. It seems that Secretary Kerry had a hard time getting the go-ahead from the White House. At one point, Russia's foreign minister came into the press room complaining that it was taking too long for Kerry to get that approval. He said that vertical power moves slowly in a democracy. But though he complained about that, he did end up coming and appearing jointly with Secretary Kerry tonight and saying that the Russians are determined to move ahead with this plan.

CORNISH: Finally, Michelle, for people in that besieged city of Aleppo, what could this deal do for them?

KELEMEN: Aleppo's really key. Secretary Kerry says if you can bring peace there, then the peace prospects for a diplomatic solution brighten. And if they can't, that's going to be harder to get the opposition to the peace talks. And what really needs to happen, he said, is a pullback from Castello Road. That's a main artery into Aleppo. The U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who is also here tonight has said that Aleppo is running low on fuel, so breaking this siege is really urgent.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Geneva. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.