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U.N. Aid Workers Question Russian Calls For De-Escalation Zones In Syria


The United Nations has a lot of questions about a Russian plan for the conflict in Syria. Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, have proposed so-called de-escalation zones. Here are two of the big concerns for aid workers. Would that help the U.N. reach millions of Syrians who are in desperate need of aid, and would it stop Russian and Syrian attacks on medical facilities? NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kevin Kennedy is the U.N.'s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the crisis in Syria, and he's making the rounds in Washington to bring policymakers here up to date on his efforts. To send aid convoys, the U.N. has to get a series of approvals from the Syrian government, and the record is not good.

KEVIN KENNEDY: Our batting average on these requests is very low - some months, zero for 20, two for 20, et cetera. In the last two months, it's improved.

KELEMEN: But not by much, and it's not clear if aid access would improve in this so-called de-escalation or de-confliction zones, terms that sound strange to Kennedy.

KENNEDY: Sort of a Orwellian term, but there they are - not quite safe zone, which was the operative term before. This was - it came out on agreement from the Russian Federation and the governments of Iran and Turkey. We were not part of those discussions.

KELEMEN: We meet at the U.N. offices in Washington in between his meetings with Trump administration officials and congressional staffers. The U.S. has been skeptical of the Russian plan mostly because Iran is one of the guarantors. Both Russia and Iran support the Syrian regime. Kennedy has other concerns, such as, will neighboring countries try to send refugees back too soon?

KENNEDY: One of the concerns that people naturally have with these safe zones is that, well, are they safe? Would there be freedom of movement for people in there? Will neighboring countries perhaps use these zones to get rid of refugees - a lot of protection concerns here.

KELEMEN: Still, U.N. officials say they want to see this work, and Kennedy hopes it will put a stop to what he calls the most egregious pattern of the war, attacks on medical facilities.

KENNEDY: If you are working in an oppositional area, in a hospital clinic, you are working in the building frankly with a big bull's eye on the roof.

KELEMEN: The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator says there have been 65 reported attacks on medical facilities in April alone. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.