ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to build up the diplomatic momentum to end the brutal war in Syria and focus the world on countering ISIS. Today, he met many of the stakeholders in this complex war. He sat down with the foreign ministers of 18 countries in New York, including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, everyone is aiming to get Syria's warring factions to the negotiating table soon.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: After huddling with the so-called International Syria Support Group, Kerry went to the U.N. Security Council which voted unanimously to back this diplomatic push.
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JOHN KERRY: This counsel is sending a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria and lay the groundwork for a government that the long-suffering people of that battered land can support.
KELEMEN: The plan calls for talks on a political solution and a cease-fire in Syria except in those parts under the control of ISIS. It's meant to keep everyone focused on that terrorist threat. President Obama says this will be difficult with so many countries invested and with Russia propping up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Still, he says he believes Russia has come to recognize something.
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BARACK OBAMA: They're not really moving the needle that much and despite a sizable deployment inside of Syria. And of course, that's what I suggested would happen because there's only so much bombing you can do when an entire country is outraged and believes that its ruler doesn't represent them.
KELEMEN: Diplomats haven't resolved that big question of Assad's fate. Obama says the Syrian leader has too much blood on his hands and has to leave for the war to end. He says there is a way to do this that maintains Syrian government institutions and takes into account Russia's long alliance with the regime - what he calls Russian equities. A former U.S. envoy on Syria, Fred Hof, doesn't have high hopes.
FRED HOF: We've seen this movie before. We saw it two years ago.
KELEMEN: That's when opponents of Bashar al-Assad went to talks in Switzerland but faced a government that had no interest in negotiating Assad's departure. Hof, who's now with the Atlantic Council, says he doesn't fault the Obama administration for trying again.
HOF: But I think there's always the danger that a process can end up being, in effect, an open-ended permission slip for a continued mass murder in Syria.
KELEMEN: The way to avoid that, Hof says, is to ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime to stop indiscriminate bombings and end the sieges on opposition strongholds.
HOF: If the international community of this Syria Support Group can't tackle that upfront, if the Russians and Iranians are not willing to get their client out of this business, how likely is it that they'll oblige their client to negotiate seriously? So I think putting civilian protection upfront is really the way to test whether or not we have anything here.
KELEMEN: While the U.S. tries to convince Russia to put pressure on Assad, Russia's foreign minister has different ideas. He's trying to shape the negotiation set to begin next month by calling for a clear list of which rebels are terrorists and which ones can sit down with the Assad regime. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.