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US to Russia: Use Leverage to Distribute Aid in Syria

FILE - Syrian men carry aid parcels provided by the U.N. World Food Program and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the rebel-held town of Al-Houla, on the northern outskirts of Homs in central Syria, May 25, 2016.

The U.S. has stepped up pressure on Syria’s key ally, Russia, to use its influence to get humanitarian aid to besieged parts of the country.

The State Department said Wednesday that the U.S had asked Russia to use its military planes in Syria to deliver aid to communities that have been cut off by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

“Russia actually has air assets on the ground in Syria,” department spokesman Mark Toner said. And Russia “ostensibly has the permission of the Syrian government to fly.”

The State Department declined to say how the U.S. request was conveyed to Russia. Also, there was no initial information suggesting Russia would agree to the request.

At a May meeting in Vienna, the International Syria Support Group announced it would ask the U.N. World Food Program to begin taking steps on June 1 for airdrops, if the Assad regime continued to block ground convoys.

Toner said the U.S. was “disappointed” that support group member Russia had not taken any “demonstrable steps” to support the group’s call for airdrops since the May meeting.

“We are looking to Russia to exert the influence that it claims to have on the Assad regime,” he said.

WFP plan

The World Food Program has been working on a plan to drop food and medicine to cutoff Syrian communities, a plan that it said would require the permission of the Syrian regime. But the program said ground convoys remained a better alternative.

On Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Syrian regime had granted approval for land convoys to three besieged areas, including the town of Daraya, where a convoy made a partial delivery June 1.

He said that overall, the Syrian regime had granted the U.N. permission to deliver aid to 15 of the 17 besieged areas to which it requested access.

A cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid are key components of a broader plan, backed by the International Syria Support Group, for a political transition in Syria.

But in a Tuesday speech to parliament, Assad struck a defiant tone, pledging to take back “every inch” of Syria.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he had discussed Assad’s comments with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“He said that the transition is still the goal,” Kerry said.

Kerry told reporters that Lavrov also said Russia was working on getting a lasting cease-fire in place in Syria.

VOA's Nike Ching contributed to this report.