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U.S. And Russian Officials To Meet In Geneva To Talk Peace In Syria

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry, who's in Geneva. He's been meeting with Russia's foreign minister. She's on the line. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the foreign ministers saying about this nuclear test?

KELEMEN: Well, Kerry got the news while he was on the plane coming over here. He's been on the phone, he says, with his counterparts from South Korea and Japan. And both he and Sergey Lavrov at their opening session of the talks here both condemned this and said they have to get the Security Council to go back and really implement the resolutions that it has on North Korea.

INSKEEP: This has got to be frustrating if you are a U.S. diplomat, and you've been working on this for years. North Korea does what it does.

KELEMEN: Indeed. I mean - but this administration also had this policy of strategic patience for a long time. They gave China a lot of leeway to deal with North Korea the way it wanted to. I think there's a lot of frustration and hand-wringing but not a lot of policy options.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Michele Kelemen in Geneva. And we should mention, Michele, that the foreign ministers were together - of U.S and Russia - because they wanted to talk about the war in Syria - trying for a cease-fire again. What's happening?

KELEMEN: That's right. They've been meeting for weeks, discussing this possibility of having kind of a broader deal. The goal is to get a cease-fire, open up aid routes to cities under siege. Aleppo is really a key test.

That used to be Syria's largest city. And administration officials want to make sure there's no siege of Aleppo. They're looking for assurances from Russia on that, since it is Russia that backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has helped him, you know, in the past year gain a lot of ground.

INSKEEP: Do these two countries see their interests even partly the same in Syria at this point?

KELEMEN: You know, they back different sides. Initially, when the Russians went in - this was a year ago now - said that the Russians would get bogged down. That hasn't really happened. And the U.S. has really little leverage here.

It's really counting on Russia to use its influence with Assad. One of the goals, also, is to get Assad to ground Syrian planes and helicopters. Stop bombing civilians. Stop bombing these opposition strongholds. But they have to convince Russia that it's in their interests.

INSKEEP: And the Russians, from the remarks you heard, are not convinced?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, administration officials say that what the Russians want is the other part of the deal that they're talking about. And that is the sitting down and working with the U.S. military in Syria, working across the table, making joint decisions on targeting terrorist groups.

And that's not just ISIS but also against an al-Qaida-linked group that operates in Aleppo. Now, Pentagon officials have made clear they're very skeptical about this.

They've watched how Russia and Syria claim to be targeting terrorists but often hit civilians or, in fact, the rebels that the U.S. has been backing in Syria. So there's really not much trust there.

INSKEEP: This is really interesting. You're saying the Russians are saying, let's cooperate against terrorists, which sounds reasonable on the surface. But the U.S. suspicion is that the United States would just be used.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was particularly tough on Russia in a speech this week, questioning whether Russia is really interested in a cease-fire or is slow-walking this. That's a real big holdup here. And there's a lot of skepticism in Washington about Russian intentions.

INSKEEP: Michele, thanks very much as always.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. She is in Geneva, Switzerland, traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.