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The World Has Become A Bit Dull To News From Syria, Miliband Says


There have been so few moments of optimism during the brutal civil war in Syria, and it is hard to know the true impact of this morning's news.


In Munich, the U.S. and Russia announced plans for a cease-fire. This came after a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. They said there would also be an increase in humanitarian aid. The catch to all of this is that the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups must all first agree.

GREENE: Now this U.S.-Russia plan would go into effect in a week, and that is simply too long for Syrians to wait. That's the message this morning from David Miliband. He is president of the International Rescue Committee, one of the humanitarian organizations working in Syria. We spoke with him just before the U.S. and Russia announced their plan, and he described a devastating situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. That city has areas that are home to opponents of President Assad, and those places have been pounded by Russian airstrikes.

DAVID MILIBAND: We've seen in the last few weeks, really, since the aerial bombardment reached its latest level, really, 100,000 people fleeing Aleppo, people who've survived the war for four years and now in desperation leaving and many of them trying to get into Turkey, some of them going to Lebanon and all of them in a really desperate state. Details that come back from our staff are really heartrending. And I'm afraid we've even lost two kids who froze and were suffering from malnutrition. So we're really seeing the hardest end of humanitarian work at the moment.

GREENE: Yeah, I saw you actually tweet about these two kids. They were infants.

MILIBAND: Yeah, they were infants who had been suffering from malnutrition. They then got caught in the cold, and I'm afraid we couldn't get to them, and their families couldn't get to us before it was too late. I think that, in a way, the world has become a bit dull to the news from Syria, and we've been trying to explain from the ground that this is a humanitarian catastrophe of absolutely extraordinary proportions. It's certainly the greatest humanitarian tragedy of this century so far. So this is a war that is not just a war without end but a war without lore inside Syria because civilians are being targeted in an absolutely ruthless fashion, not just by the Assad regime but also, I'm sorry to say, by Russian bombs and also, obviously, by the terror of ISIS. And the need for a much more comprehensive and determined diplomatic and political effort has never been more evident.

GREENE: I'm really struck by when you talk about Aleppo, that there are people right now fleeing who tried so, so hard to wait things out and have been in this city under, I would imagine, terrible conditions and bombardment for, as you said, four years now. And they have just reached the point of desperation now.

MILIBAND: Yes, it's very, very striking. Syria was pretty much a middle-class country. The people we're talking about are doctors and accountants and workers as well as rather than simply peasants. It was an urbanized society. And they've got a lot at stake. They've got businesses. They've got houses that they wanted to hang onto.

GREENE: Well, one of the challenges for the United States has been trying to work effectively with Russia and trying to find a solution here. And some have blamed the Russians, saying that their airstrikes in Aleppo have made the situation much worse, although the Russian ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva told us that, you know, they are going after terrorists and that civilian casualties are just part of the process. What do you make of what the Russians are doing right now?

MILIBAND: I mean, I can only report from what we see on the ground, and there is a randomness to the bombings. That means that the cause for a cease to those bombings seem, to me, to have an absolutely basic humanitarian imperative to them.

GREENE: Have they made the situation worse, the humanitarian situation?

MILIBAND: There's no question now. The people who were previously threatened by Assad and by ISIS are now threatened by the Russians as well. There's no question that the humanitarian situation has deteriorated since September when the Russian airstrikes started, and there's no question that the prospects of a political settlement have been pushed further away. It is my job to tell you that there are defenseless civilians on the ground, who are not participants of the conflict, who currently face a triple threat of absolutely terrifying proportions.

GREENE: How worried are you about the safety of your staff in Syria right now?

MILIBAND: I'm very worried always about staff safety in the midst of war. We have 2,000 staff in Syria. These are local people, not Americans or Europeans who jet in to work there. They live in these towns and cities. And so in that sense, there is no escape. There's an extraordinary commitment amongst them. There's an extraordinary sense of mission. And when you talk to them about it, they just say, well, look, this is my country, this is my community, this is my family, and I can't defend my community and my family by taking up arms, but I can tend to my family and my community by trying to administer health care, can provide protection for kids and for women. And so these are people who I worry about but who display an extraordinary bravery above all because they have no choice.

GREENE: David Miliband, thanks very much for talking to us, and best of luck to your organization on the ground in trying to solve this crisis.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much for your interest.

GREENE: David Miliband heads the International Rescue Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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