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Russia is increasing its support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and that has Washington nervous. The Obama administration says the only way to resolve the Syrian refugee crisis is to end the war, and the White House has tried for years to work with Russia on that. But the countries still don't see eye-to-eye on the key question of what to do about Assad. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry was so alarmed by the new Russian military aid and troops moving into Syria that he called his Russian counterpart twice this week. Sergei Lavrov, though, says the U.S. shouldn't be surprised.
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SERGEI LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).
KELEMEN: "There are Russian servicemen in Syria, and they've been there many years," he says, explaining that they're there to train the Syrian army on how to handle Russian military hardware. Russia says it's supporting the army in order to fight terrorists in Syria. There were moments when the U.S. and Russia worked together to get rid of Syria's declared stockpiles of chemical weapons and to discuss plans for a political transition. A former U.S. envoy on Syria, Fred Hof, says Russian diplomats have been very effective in giving American officials the impression that Russia was not wedded to Assad.
FRED HOF: Russian diplomats have, I think, permitted those officials to believe that Bashar might somehow be expendable. But my own view is that this has been a tactic aimed mainly at preempting effective American actions, either to protect Syrian civilians or to support the nationalist opposition effectively.
KELEMEN: Those rebels have been fighting a two-front war against both Assad and the so-called Islamic State militants. Assad has managed to squeeze them out with the help of Russia and Iran, and Hof says that seems to have been the Russian objective all along - to make this a simple contest between Assad and ISIS, knowing that the U.S. would have to choose the Syrian regime.
HOF: This means the president of the United States will have to swallow all the words he's said down through the years about Bashar having lost all legitimacy, Bashar needing to step aside, et cetera, et cetera.
KELEMEN: Iran, too, remains a major backer of the Assad regime, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Syria's been one of Iran's only regional allies since the 1979 revolution, and Iran wants to maintain its resupply route through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: They keep saying that Assad is the only man who can save Syria, and my sense is that they feel that the outside world is increasingly coming around to their point of view.
KELEMEN: At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby says the U.S. is still trying to achieve a political transition away from Bashar al-Assad, and he says he believes there is still room for dialogue.
JOHN KIRBY: The most productive path here is for countries like Russia and Iran to stop supporting and abetting the Assad regime. And we're going to continue to make that case.
KELEMEN: The State Department's former envoy on Syria, Hof, who's now with the Atlantic Council, isn't holding his breath.
HOF: The Russians and the Iranians both are doubling down on Bashar, and basically the only thing the United States is bringing to this situation is a very earnest hope that Bashar's strongest supporters will escort him to the exit. And I just don't see that happening.
KELEMEN: President Obama told a military town hall meeting today that Russia is making a mistake by betting on Assad.
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BARACK OBAMA: We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double down on a strategy that's doomed to failure.
KELEMEN: Obama blames Assad for the chaos in Syria and the rise of ISIS. Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.