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U.S. And Russia Announce Joint Truce Deal For Syria

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United States and Russia have announced a new joint initiative for Syria. Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced it last night in Geneva. NPR's Alice Fordham joins us from Beirut. Alice, thanks for being with us.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What does the plan involve?

FORDHAM: Well, they haven't made the actual documents public. But from what we were able to glean from the conference they gave last night, it's quite an elaborate mechanism, which, if it works, will initially bring about a lull in violence, which will include the grounding of the Syrian Air Force in many areas.

And then if that holds, other things will happen which have been goals certainly for the United States in these negotiations for a long time. So that includes aid access for besieged areas, including the half of Aleppo city which is held by the opposition. That aid access has to be unimpeded either by rebel forces, which has happened, or by the regime, which has systematically withheld basic aid from hundreds of thousands of civilians by denying the U.N. permission to take that aid to places.

And then one of the things that will happen after that is that there is meant to be military cooperation between the United States and the Russian air forces on targeting extremists, the group they consider to be part of al-Qaida and ISIS. And then the restarting of peace talks between the opposition and the Syrian regime.

SIMON: Alice, based on your experience, does it seem likely to work?

FORDHAM: It is more than easy, Scott, to think of reasons why it wouldn't. The whole plan rests on a succession of rather frail assumptions. We could take just one - the Russians say that they have talked to their ally, the Syrian regime, and that President Bashar al-Assad is on board with this plan. But the regime has repeatedly played for time with talks and peace plans and every time has ultimately shown very little willingness to budge or to keep promises.

And the Russians themselves stand accused of aiding an air campaign by the Syrian regime, especially in the north of the country, that the opposition says targets, you know, mainly civilian infrastructure and moderate rebels. Those things are absolutely not meant to be part of the targeting in this new deal. But both diplomats and opposition on the ground are deeply skeptical even if the regime and its allies, which includes Iran, as well as others, as well as Russia - even if the regime and its allies abide by a cease-fire and the opposition abides by a cease-fire. Well, we know that Syria - it's been in a state of civil war for five years, and it is multi-factional. There are other actors, other complicating factors involved here. Turkey has just begun an incursion to defeat ISIS and also fight against a big Syrian-Kurdish faction. And there's no talk about how these, you know, messy sub-conflicts are going to fit into this deal.

SIMON: Does the deal, as you read through whatever we can tell of the fine print, involve - does it depend on keeping Bashar al-Assad in power? And wouldn't the rebels find that exactly what they've been fighting against for five years?

FORDHAM: So that part of the deal would fall under the category of peace talks. So the deal as announced by the U.S. and Russia just said that these were steps that were being put in place so that peace talks would restart. The positions of the Syrian regime and the main opposition negotiating committee - not to mention the armed opposition actually on the ground in Syria - are, it's correct to say, still miles apart.

There is no good precedent for thinking that these peace talks will work well for exactly the reason that you have said. The Syrian regime and its allies should - have at no point countenanced the idea that Bashar al-Assad will step down. And then the opposition negotiating committee reiterated in London this week that they foresee a six-month transitional period at the end of which Assad is no longer the president of Syria. So that's a pretty big sticking point.

SIMON: And starts on Monday?

FORDHAM: Starts on Monday at sundown, which is also the beginning of the Muslim Eid festival, yes.

SIMON: Alice Fordham in Beirut. Thanks so much.

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