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U.S. Diplomats Defend U.S. Policy In Syria Before Congressional Panel

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

On Capitol Hill today, two U.S. diplomats were on the defensive over U.S. policy in Syria and how Washington is handling Russian's intervention. One Republican says it seems the U.S. is ceding the skies over Syria to Russian war planes. Russia has continued its airstrikes sometimes hitting areas controlled by rebels who get U.S. backing. Today, Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart reminding him that they have a common enemy in Syria - ISIS. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. and Russian planes have managed to avoid each other over Syria so far, but Kerry and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, still seem to be testing each other on the diplomatic front. Russia is backing Bashar al-Assad's regime which Kerry says has to go. So what is the U.S. doing about it? One analyst, Yezid Sayigh, who's with the Carnegie Middle East Center, says it appears the Obama administration is waiting for Russia to fail.

YEZID SAYIGH: The U.S. position at the moment is more - we're not going to bail out the Russians. They put themselves in. They put their foot in. Let's leave them, you know, to their own devices until they want to come to us and make some suggestions.

KELEMEN: Everyone is stuck over whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be forced to step down, and against this backdrop, Sayigh thinks diplomats should shift gears.

SAYIGH: I don't see a political solution coming out of the current configuration, but maybe, maybe, maybe an armed truce.

KELEMEN: That is a cease-fire that keeps everyone and their proxies in place. He says there's about a 2 percent chance of that, but that's better than nothing. It's not only analysts who are skeptical. The chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce of California, kicked off the hearing today by saying the White House has no strategy to end the devastating civil war in Syria.

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ED ROYCE: Instead, it is now Russia that is taking the decisive role in shaping Syria's future and not in a helpful way.

KELEMEN: The California Republican pressed two top state department officials about Russia's military action in Syria. The assistant secretary of state for Europe, Victoria Nuland, says Russian war planes are rarely hitting ISIS targets and instead dropping what she calls dumb bombs that are killing civilians and forcing more Syrians to flee.

VICTORIA NULAND: We've been very clear with the Russians about what we're seeing in terms of the results of their strikes. Secretary has spoken to Foreign Minister Lavrov virtually every day also about our insistence that they exact some kind of restraint out of Assad for the support that they're giving at least in the area of barrel bombing.

KELEMEN: Nuland acknowledges, though, that the Syrian regime continues to drop those explosive-filled barrels, and Bashar al-Assad seems to be emboldened by Moscow's help. The state department's point person on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson, says that this is a risky course for Russia.

ANNE PATTERSON: We've already seen imams in the gulf call for an increased jihad against the godless Russian presence in Syria. So I won't say they've bitten off more than they can chew, but they certainly have issues that they're going to confront, not the least of which is their huge Islamic population inside and on the perimeter of Russia.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has been making this case repeatedly to Russia both privately and in public. Assistant Secretary Nuland says so far, the Russians don't seem to be listening. Still, Secretary Kerry plans to keep talking in hopes of finding some common ground. Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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