4 Questions Answered On The Syria Talks In Munich

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left) attend the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, Germany, on Thursday along with members of the Syrian opposition and other officials. (AP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left) attend the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich, Germany, on Thursday along with members of the Syrian opposition and other officials. (AP)

Syrian peace talks are taking place amid a new urgency. The four-year-old civil war could be on the verge of yet another humanitarian disaster.

Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting the Russian foreign minister as the two countries are increasingly at odds – essentially backing opposite sides in the war.

A UN-brokered peace process is going nowhere.

The Syrian regime – with Russian military backing – now advances toward rebel-held areas in the large city of Aleppo. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled for their lives but hundreds of thousands more remain in the city.

Here's a breakdown on the talks, which are in Germany and could last through Saturday.

Who is there and what are they discussing?

This meeting by the so-called International Syria Support Group in Munich is an effort to get the broad U.N. talks going again. The ISSG is a group of about 20 countries, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, and European and Middle Eastern nations, who have an interest in the Syrian conflict.

And as the Associated Press reports, "A truce is seen as critical to resuscitating peace talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition. They stalled last month before really starting."

Syrian peace talks are scheduled to resume Feb. 25. NPR's Alison Meuse has reported that the fighting in Aleppo contributed to the suspension of a previous round of talks earlier this month.

The focus today is on Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Their two countries have been exchanging blame for the increased violence in Syria. When the talks stalled last month, the U.N. envoy running them said that getting the U.S. and Russia to work together is key before progress can be made.

Why do the U.S. and Russia differ so starkly?

The U.S. and Russia see fundamentally different endgames for the Syrian conflict.

"From the start, I'd say the Russians have been pretty clear that they don't see anyone who could replace (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. doesn't see the war ending as long as Assad's in power," reports NPR's Michele Kelemen who is traveling with Kerry in Munich.

Both the U.S. and Russia have taken significant roles in negotiations until now, she says:

"When the Syrian government crossed the U.S. red line and used chemical weapons in 2013, the U.S. worked with Russia to rid Syria of its declared stockpiles. The West saw that as a sign that Russia would use its leverage when necessary, and the Russians saw that as a sign that the only way you resolve things in Syria is to work with the Assad regime."

And when Russia entered the conflict with airstrikes, it gave them "the kind of leverage that the U.S. doesn't have here, and a clear sense of what they want to make sure Assad's regime survives," Michele says.

What do the U.S. and Russia want now?

Russia has proposed a ceasefire that would start on March 1.

But "the U.S. and others see that as a ploy that only serves to give Moscow and the Syrian army three more weeks to try to crush Western- and Arab-backed rebels," AP reports.

Its planes are providing air support to Syrian government forces, particularly in a new offensive on rebel-held areas in Aleppo.

Kerry is pushing for a quicker ceasefire and humanitarian access to places under siege, like Aleppo.

"What [Kerry] has been trying to do is get all the countries that have a stake in Syria to push their proxies toward a political settlement so that everyone can focus on ISIS," reports Michele Kelemen.

She says the Russians "brush off" accusations that their offensive near Aleppo has stalled talks: "They say they're there fighting terrorists."

And Michele reports that "officials keep reminding the Russians that they signed on to a U.N. Security resolution that calls for peace talks and that calls for humanitarian access."

As Syrian opposition negotiator Salem al-Muslet tells NPR, "Syrians can't wait another week, as Russia's warplanes pound Aleppo, displacing more people and cutting off aid supply routes."

What happens if these talks fail?

The war in Syria has already killed a quarter of a million people, and that stands to rise if there's no agreement.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation grows steadily worse. The United Nations said today that some 300,000 people are at risk of being placed under siege in Aleppo, which was Syria's largest city before the war began.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had a dire warning ahead of today's talks. He told a German newspaper that if world powers "fail to negotiate an end to the conflict in Syria, [a] permanent or a world war" could ensue, Reuters reports.

"It would be impossible to win such a war quickly ... especially in the Arab world, where everybody is fighting against everybody," Medvedev said, according to the wire service. "All sides must be compelled to sit at the negotiating table instead of unleashing a new world war."

Talk of a world war is extreme. But a failure would mean more death and misery for thousands of people in Syria – and drive more to seek safety in neighboring countries and Europe.

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