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U.N. Calls For Ceasefire To Reach Besieged Areas In Syria

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Years of destruction and violence in Syria have crystallized this week in one image, a photo and video of a dazed young boy, his face bloodied and covered with dust. He's from Aleppo which used to be the country's largest city and is now facing a deadly air campaign. The United Nations envoy has been desperately trying to convince Russia and Syria to stop bombing Aleppo long enough to get aid to people there. Russia says it could agree to a brief pause, but not until next week. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Activists have been sharing videos of children being pulled from destroyed buildings in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, areas being pounded by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. But it was that one image of a 5-year-old boy sitting in an ambulance looking dazed that State Department spokesman John Kirby mentioned in his daily briefing today.

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JOHN KIRBY: By my figuring, that little boy's never known a day of his life where there hasn't been war, death, destruction and poverty in his own country.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials say it was another reminder of the need for the fighting in Aleppo to stop. And on that point, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is sounding exasperated.

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STAFFAN DE MISTURA: What we are hearing and seeing is only fighting, offensive, counteroffensive, rockets, barrel bombs, mortars, hellfire cannons napalm, chlorine, snipers, airstrikes, suicide bombers.

KELEMEN: In Geneva today, de Mistura cut short a meeting on the humanitarian situation because there's been no progress at all.

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DE MISTURA: Not one single convoy in one month has reached any of the humanitarian besieged areas, not one single convoy.

KELEMEN: For weeks now, the U.N. has been urging the U.S. and Russia to help arrange a 48-hour humanitarian pause in the fighting in Aleppo. The Russians now say they will do that next week as a, quote, "pilot project." State Department spokesman Kirby says the U.S. would support any effort to reduce the violence, but that's not enough.

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KIRBY: We really believe it's important to get beyond temporary ephemeral and localized ceasefires.

KELEMEN: He says Secretary of State John Kerry is still working with Russia to revive a nationwide truce and create the conditions for peace talks. Former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has her doubts.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: We should keep a channel open. I don't think the Russians or the Iranians or Assad are going to seriously come to the table until they're convinced that they can't win this militarily, and that means ensuring that the opposition holds its own.

KELEMEN: But U.S.-supported rebels are having a hard time holding out in places like Aleppo. Flournoy, who runs the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, says the U.S. should be careful about how much it cooperates with Russia in Syria and how much information it shares.

FLOURNOY: There's a real trust deficit here based on Russian - the Russian track record. When they are aware of the location of the - some of the opposition groups and forces that we're supporting, they've often struck them.

KELEMEN: Russia has also been providing diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad at the U.N., and that worries Amnesty International's Nicolette Boehland, who talked to NPR via Skype today about a new report estimating 17,000 Syrians have died in government jails in the past five years.

NICOLETTE BOEHLAND: The shocking thing about this report is not new figures or new data. It's that the international media has done so little to actually deal with this.

KELEMEN: Unable to visit any of the prisons, Amnesty took testimony from survivors to create an online model of one notorious Syrian jail to try to give the world a glimpse. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.