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As Negotiations Continue, Hopes For Cease-Fire In Syria Dwindle


President Obama says this week will be a test for the new international agreement on Syria.


BARACK OBAMA: John Kerry, working with his Russian counterpart, has, on paper, said that there's going to be a cessation of hostilities in a few days. This will test whether or not that's possible.

SHAPIRO: That international agreement is supposed to lead to a break in the fighting starting Friday. But since the agreement was reached, the fighting in Syria has gotten worse, and the negotiators are still trying to figure out how it all would work. For more, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.


SHAPIRO: This agreement signed by the U.S., Russia and other countries. Remind us what exactly it says. Who is supposed to cease hostilities against whom?

BOWMAN: Well, the agreement, Ari, centered on two points - a cease-fire and then allowing humanitarian aid to flow in - both expected by Friday. Now that sounds simple enough, but as you - it is incredibly complicated because the cease-fire does not include the terrorist groups, specifically the Islamic State or the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front. That's in the agreement, we're told. Now Russia and Syria say all rebels are terrorists - those against the Syrian government who are supported by the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And in some places, you have these antigovernment rebels mixed in with those agreed-upon terrorist groups. Places like Aleppo, the large city in northern Syria which Russia continues to bomb some 100 to 200 airstrikes each day, and that continues today.

SHAPIRO: Well, that sounds then like the fighting is unlikely to stop even after the cease-fire takes effect on Friday.

BOWMAN: That's right. U.S. military officials believe that Russia and Syria could continue airstrikes and missile launches after the deadline on Friday, saying we're just hitting terrorists again. And the Russians want to wrap up the operation to essentially control Aleppo and the supply lines into Turkey because that would pretty much isolate the opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad or mean that the opposition is greatly weakened. Now while the bombing could continue, it's possible humanitarian supplies could begin to go in again around Friday. And it's necessary because people are trapped in the combat zones. There are some 300,000 people in Aleppo alone. Hundreds have already died, food's running out, they have no electricity. Also, tens of thousands are fleeing into Turkey, so it's a pretty dire situation. They need that humanitarian aid.

SHAPIRO: And if the fighting continues preventing the humanitarian aid from getting in? Then what?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know. U.S. officials haven't said. The U.S. is focused on defeating the Islamic State, not getting involved in a war against Syria or Russia. They have said repeatedly they want a diplomatic solution here. But if this humanitarian crisis continues, there'll be more and more pressure on the West, particularly the United States, to do more to relieve this problem. Now there are a quarter of a million killed, some estimates of 300,000 killed, and so - U.S. officials say that 50 more people have died just yesterday. So again, there could be pressure for the U.S. to do something.

SHAPIRO: Help us understand Russia's role in all of this. That country is launching airstrikes on behalf of the Syrian government, and is also a party to this international agreement that hopes to stop the fighting. How do we make sense of Russia's actions?

BOWMAN: Well, Russia has done something similar to this before. They've signed agreements in Ukraine. Russian-backed forces moved into eastern Ukraine, grabbed territory, Russia agreed to a cease-fire, then broke it. It happened also in Georgia after Russian incursions there. In each of these cases, according to international observers and the U.S. government, Russian forces agreed to stop for a time and then they went back to doing just what they were doing. And you're seeing it again in Aleppo.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.