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U.S.-Russia To Coordinate Airstrikes Against ISIS

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia have come up with a plan for a nationwide cease-fire in Syria, which started yesterday. For the first time, the two countries plan to coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State and al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the way ahead will be difficult, but necessary, he says, to find some type of political settlement that ends a war well into its 6th year.

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JOHN KERRY: This is the best thing we could think of, and President Obama has gone the extra mile here to try to find a way to see if we can bring people to the table and end the violence while they go to the table to try to settle this.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, joins us now to talk about the way ahead. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And the big if is whether the cease-fire will actually hold for an entire week, at which point - a week - this unusual cooperation between Russia and the U.S. is scheduled to begin.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the bottom line, Renee, is the White House wanted this bad. And they wanted a way to stop the bombing of civilians, allow for humanitarian aid to flow into Aleppo and start towards some type of political solution. Now, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, I'm told, has been very wary of any agreement. He just doesn't trust the Russians. And he and others point to the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo, for example.

Now, the Russians and Syrians were bombing right up until the last minute before the agreement went into effect. Yesterday, there were dozens of airstrikes and artillery barrages, I'm told. Still, the administration is pushing this as a way to reach a political settlement, and they have to go through the Russians, who are propping up the regime. So part of all of this is that John Kerry has said it will be, quote, "some sharing of information with the Russians."

MONTAGNE: And what kind of information?

BOWMAN: Well, they're still working that out. It'll basically be targeting information to go after ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate. John Kerry talked about setting up some sort of operation center with the Russians. It's uncertain whether that would be a physical location in a place like Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where could - you could have U.S. and Russian officers sit side by side.

You know, they could work targets in other ways - just sending coordinates. The U.S. and Russia already communicate over the radio to make sure their aircraft don't run into each other.

MONTAGNE: You know, the Assad regime sees all rebels as terrorists. Russia says that it's not possible to separate the terrorists from the Western-backed rebels. So this sounds like a huge challenge.

BOWMAN: This'll be one of the biggest challenges. You know, some anti-Assad rebels are mixed in with that al-Qaida affiliate. The U.S. is supporting those anti-Assad rebels and don't want them targeted. And you're right; the Syrians see all rebels as terrorists. So the question will be, how do you separate one rebel group from another, and do you just try to target those areas where you have mostly al-Qaida affiliates? That could be very difficult to work out.

Now, another challenge, Renee, is the Russians use mostly what's called dumb bombs. They're not precise and might not hit the intended target. The U.S. uses precision-guided weapons that can be directed to the target. So let's say the U.S. gives the Russians a target and they mess up - they hit a school or a hospital. What does the U.S. do? Do they insist that the Russians only use precision weapons? So there are a lot of questions that are - that have not been answered yet.

MONTAGNE: Humanitarian aid will also be a big part of this agreement. When will that start moving?

BOWMAN: Well, the Russians' leadership says the humanitarian aid will start moving immediately, sometime this week. And that's a big deal because there are hundreds of thousands of people who have been suffering, who desperately need that support, food and medicine.

And that'll be handled by private humanitarian groups, but you could see both the U.S. and Russia are providing not only assurances the aid will get through, but maybe even some kind of surveillance to make sure that actually happens.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.