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Syrian Opposition Leader Says Russian Involvement Will Only Help Assad


We are also tracking this news from Syria. Russia says its planes are bombing in Syria today. Russian officials made that statement to U.S. diplomats. The Russians say their planes, now based in Syria, would be flying missions today against ISIS. And they asked that American aircraft avoid Syrian air space during these missions. That's an effort to avoid an accidental conflict in the sky. Russia's involvement in Syria has been met with profound skepticism on the ground. Much of that doubt comes from moderate Syrian opposition groups who want to overthrow the government that Russia supports. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The leader of a Western-backed Syrian opposition group, Khaled Khoja, says he thought he was making some headway with the Russians on a recent visit to Moscow where he talked about alternatives to Bashar al-Assad.

KHALED KHOJA: They were welcoming our ideas in order to work on the alternatives of the regime, but we felt that they used those conversation in order to cover their military intervention to Syria.

KELEMEN: Now he doesn't want diplomats at the U.N. to be fooled by Russia. He says Russia's latest batch of airplanes, helicopters and other weapons won't be used to fight ISIS militants in Syria as promised. Instead, he says the Russians just want to prop up a regime that's killing its own people. He says this could draw in even more jihadis who will want to fight the Russians and could encourage Assad to continue his indiscriminate bombing campaigns.

KHOJA: This will fuel the war inside Syria and make the situation much more chaotic. This will lead to much more waves of refugees fleeing from Syria toward Europe's.

KELEMEN: And that is clearly a concern for the European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, who emerged from a meeting on the Syrian humanitarian crisis yesterday, telling reporters this.


FEDERICA MOGHERINI: Dealing with the humanitarian aspects of the crisis is curing only the symptoms, and that at the same time, we also have to tackle the causes, which is the war in Syria.

KELEMEN: She thinks international diplomats can find common ground and make a concerted push for political negotiations in Syria.


MOGHERINI: I see that around this concept of starting a political process that includes all Syrians that refuse terrorism and who want to fight and unite forces against terrorists, I see that there might be a political space for new initiatives in the coming weeks.

KELEMEN: The key question is what to do about Assad. The U.S. and its partners say it's impossible to see how ISIS can be defeated as long as Assad's in power. They argue that his atrocities have fueled the rise of extremism. But President Obama now talks about a managed transition, and Secretary Kerry has indicated this could take time. The Syrian opposition leader, Khoja, says he's been assured by the U.S. and European officials he's met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that they haven't changed their positions on Assad.

KHOJA: I think they were trying to test the flexibility of the Russians - if the Russians accepted future Syria without Bashar al-Assad so it sometime can be discussed within the countries. If not, those countries are tending to provide more support to the opposition.

KELEMEN: That may be wishful thinking on his part, though. Syrian opposition leaders have come to the U.N. for several years now, calling on the world body to do more to protect civilians and set up safe zones. Khoja is making that case again, saying a no-fly zone is needed more than ever. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest says that's not something the Obama administration is currently considering. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
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.