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Russia's Strikes In Syria Muddle Efforts Slow Flow Of Refugees


Europeans are desperate to stop the flow of refugees from Syria. That means not only countering ISIS, but also stopping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's indiscriminate bombing campaigns. Making things more difficult - Russia's actions to prop up Assad. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports now from the U.N. where diplomats are struggling to find a way out of this conundrum.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that his country is not in Syria only to help one side in a civil war. He says it's to go after ISIS and other terrorist groups. And though the U.S. says Russia seems to be hitting other opponents of Assad's regime, Lavrov thinks the U.S. and Russia should be able to agree on the targets.


SERGEY LAVROV: If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights likes a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?

KELEMEN: He says he understands the need for a broader solution to the conflict in Syria, but he's warning the U.S. not to try to topple Bashar al-Assad. He says the U.S. and its partners should learn from recent history.


LAVROV: Saddam Hussein - hanged. Is Iraq a better place, a safer place? Gaddafi - murdered in front of the viewers. Is Libya a better place? Now we are demonizing Assad. Can we try to draw lessons, you know?

KELEMEN: The Russian military moves have put Secretary of State John Kerry in a difficult spot. He's trying to force Assad out in an orderly way.


JOHN KERRY: We have a lot of work to do and we're going to get to doing that work as rapidly as possible, understanding fully how urgent this is in a context of refugees flowing out, the impact on Europe, the impact on the region and understanding also that we need to see Syria kept whole, unified, secular, democratic.

KELEMEN: Kerry has had many meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Syria. Turkey's foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioglu, is telling the U.S. that the only way to stop the flow of refugees from Syria is to protect people and to push Assad out of the way.


FERIDUN SINIRLIOGLU: That requires an orderly transition to a political change because with Assad there is no solution whatsoever in Syria. He has created this mess while launching a war against his own people.

KELEMEN: He says Assad has destroyed the country, leaving half the population homeless. The leader of a Syrian opposition group, Khaled Khoja, has also been making the rounds here, denouncing Russian airstrikes and saying there should be no place for Assad even during a transitional period.


KHALED KHOJA: And each day Bashar al-Assad still in power it means more killings, more killings of civilians. So there is no role whether it's in the beginning or in the middle or in any kind of period for Bashar al-Assad to stay in power.

KELEMEN: And though the U.S. argues that Russia is just pouring gasoline on the fire by supporting Assad with warplanes now, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, begs to differ.


LAVROV: We know about many fires gasolined by Pentagon in the region, and we believe that our position is absolutely in line with international law.

KELEMEN: Syria invited Russia in, he says. Asked whether the Russians would carry out strikes in neighboring Iraq, too, he said, quote, "Russians are polite people and don't come in if not invited." Russia has set up a joint communications center in Iraq with Syria and Iran. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. 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.