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Syrian Opposition Leader Holds Talks With Russia, Iran


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

Let's begin this morning with Syria. There has been a little bit of movement on the diplomatic front. Over the weekend, one of the main Syrian opposition leaders held informal talks with the government's main backers - Russia and Iran. These talks were held on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany. It is not clear whether this creates an opening for a political settlement that could end the bloodshed in country.

NPR's Kelly McEvers joins us from Beirut. Kelly, Good morning.


GREENE: So what is the significance of the opposition in Syria talking to Russia and Iran?

MCEVERS: I think it's important to say from the outset that right now we're talking about words and gestures. There hasn't been any real concrete action to come out of this.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

MCEVERS: But it is a pretty big deal. Up till now the main opposition groups in Syria have refused to talk to the Syrian regime and have declined invitations from Russia and Iran to have official talks. But this past week a man named Moaz Khatib, who heads the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition, he said that he would be willing to talk to members of the Syrian regime. That seemed to open the door for conversations with Iran and Russia. He spoke to the foreign ministers of both countries and I think their thinking was, OK, if you're willing to sit down and talk to the regime, we're willing to sit down and try and hammer something out with you as well. That may go a long way, it may not.

GREENE: And do Syrians seem to think that it could go a long way or are they just seeing this as not that significant?

MCEVERS: The big question - the first big question is whether Khatib's own coalition will back him in this endeavor. So far they've been very critical. There was emergency meetings late night over the weekend. Khatib returned to Cairo last night where he and the coalition are based. I'm sure he's going to face some harsh criticism from them. Up to now he said he was speaking personally, not on behalf of the whole coalition, so we'll see how that goes.

Inside Syria, I think people are mixed. You know, some people are really tired. They want an end to this madness. It's been almost two years - 60,000 people dead. One activist and journalist who we know in Aleppo - a city that's seen a lot of fighting in recent months - he said sure, come and have a dialogue with the widows, with the hungry, with the bones of the children who are crumbling from cold. Another leading activist group made it plain in a statement that they released, you know, yes, we can have a dialogue with this regime, but as long as that dialogue doesn't leave the regime in power. This regime is killing its own people and it has to go.

GREENE: You bring up some of these awful stories that we've heard. And we spoke to you last week about the massacre. It was dozens of bodies turning up in a canal in the city of Aleppo. We didn't know much more about that. Have we learned more about that massacre?

MCEVERS: Yeah. Usually we journalists can't go and verify when these massacres happen and there have been too many of them so far. But there were Western journalists in Aleppo and they were able to verify that more than 100 people were killed. Their families said that almost all of them had been in government-controlled areas when they went missing - that they were going to do regular business and then when they found them again they found them dead. So the implication is that it was the government behind this killing.

GREENE: Wow. Kelly, before I let you go, the defense minister from Israel seemed to acknowledge now that Israel launched an air strike in Syria last week. Is that significant?

MCEVERS: It is, because up to this point Israel hadn't acknowledged the strike, although American officials had, and of course the Syrian government acknowledged it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak didn't acknowledge it outright, but he said the strike was proof, quote, "that when we say something we mean it."

You know, officials have said that the strike was targeting anti-aircraft weapons that were allegedly on their way here to Israel's enemy, Hezbollah. They also said the target was a research center used to make missiles to carry chemical weapons. You know, Israel and the U.S. have said the use of chemical weapons and sophisticated weapons is a red line for them, so it's clear that Israel was making good on its threat. The question is whether this was just a warning sign or whether this conflict is now going regional.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Kelly McEvers covering the conflict for us from Beirut. Thanks, Kelly.

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

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.