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World

As Civil War Rages On, 'Life In Syria Has Crumbled'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers making the dangerous trek into Europe, we get an update now on the conflict that is propelling so many of them, the civil war in Syria. Many Syrians fleeing now are reported to be middle-class or well-to-do, including supporters of the president, Bashar al-Assad. I ask Syria watcher Joshua Landis what this signifies.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Life in Syria has really crumbled. Syrians of every color are trying to get out of their country. It's very expensive to get to Europe. They're spending thousands of dollars to pay people to guide them, to get boats. So it's not the poorest of the poor. And their children are getting older, and as they get older, they're going to move towards military age. And nobody in Syria wants their kids to go into that military.

And many of these refugees are people who've been sitting in camps for some time. They realize they're never going to go home. This fighting is going to go on for years. Their host countries have no jobs to offer them. And people are becoming much more hostile in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan where arms were originally thrown open to these refugees. Four years later, they don't want them, and they're beginning to treat them badly.

CORNISH: And we know Assad is also fending off ISIS on top of the rebel factions that he's fighting against. How much of the country does he still control, and in that part of the country, what is life like in terms of services and things like that?

LANDIS: Well, Assad controls about 25 percent of the country today. But he controls 65 percent of the people. He controls the major cities and all the coast land. That's the heavily populated part of Syria. But life is very tough. The services are off and on. Many of the people that had supported the government that lived in rebel areas have fled into this government-controlled area. But they don't have a future.

I've been speaking with a Sunni friend of mine from Deir ez-Zor. He used to work for some state oil company. He's been a refugee four times inside Syria, moving from one town to the next, as they fall to rebels or fighting overtakes them. He's taken his four kids and his wife. He's now in Damascus, but he has no job. His kids are at university and high school. They're living in one room, and he's desperate to get out of the country.

CORNISH: While all this is going on, I'm sure people have questions about the diplomatic effort or what's left of it. You have Russia reportedly sending more military aid to the Assad regime. You have the U.S. trying to revamp - reports now from The New York Times - the rebel force that it was hoping would fight the Islamic State. And you have the Islamic State. Going forward, what are the possibilities here, especially with a wildcard like ISIS?

LANDIS: Well, the question that really is on the table is, does everybody seek a cease-fire today? Leaving Assad and his regime in control of the 25 percent of the country that he now controls and accepting that the rebels are going to control the rest of the country, that still means you have to decide what to do with ISIS, which owns 50 percent of all Syria landmass.

Who's going to fight against those people? Who's going to replace them if they're destroyed? These are questions the United States hasn't answered. It says it's training up an army in Turkey, but that's a few dozen men. It's not going to be a big difference in the long run. The United States hasn't decided how it wants to deal with the great mass of Syrian rebels which are Islamist, that America doesn't like because the secular Syrians - many of them have left the country.

Assad, of course, has, in a sense, monopolized the notion of a secular Syria. Many others - the rebel Syrians - the don't like secularism. They want Islam. And the United States doesn't know how to find its way amongst these different options, all of which look very bad to it.

CORNISH: So in the meantime, does that mean a continued flow of refugees?

LANDIS: Absolutely. The refugees are going to be flowing out of Syria so long as there's this high degree of fighting. And there are over a thousand militias. It's not at all clear that even if they wanted, and Russia and the United States could agree, on some basic framework for a cease-fire, that they could influence the various sides to stop fighting today.

CORNISH: Joshua Landis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure, and thank you for asking me on.

CORNISH: Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.