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World

Syrian Government Forces Are Close To Crushing Rebellion In Aleppo

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

These could be the final hours in the battle for the eastern part of Aleppo, Syria. Fighters loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, are pressing into the last sliver of that city that is still held by anti-government forces. There have been international efforts to achieve a cease-fire. They've gone nowhere. President Assad clearly has no interest in stopping his advance, though rebel forces have kept fighting. And let's get the latest now from NPR's Alice Fordham, who joins us from Beirut. Alice, good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: We've talked about the beginning of the end before. Is this - I mean, it seems like this is well beyond that now.

FORDHAM: Yeah. The fighting isn't over yet, not by a long chalk, but the opposition-held part of the city is shrinking smaller every day. And what exactly we're seeing here is the culmination of a concerted month-long push by Syrian forces and their many allies into the half of Aleppo that has been held by the opposition for four years. We're hearing terrible things from inside that last bastion of the rebel forces. It has always been a tactic of Assad to strike indiscriminately, and in the final throes of this battle, that seems to be as true as it ever was.

People are contacting NPR saying that the destruction is unimaginable. The streets are littered with carnage. The White Helmets, who are a volunteer rescue organization, say they can't give a body count anymore. And there's probably quite a lot of people still in there, maybe tens of thousands, maybe even 100,000 who have been pushed back along with the rebel fighters as the front lines have moved.

GREENE: I mean, is anyone coming out and escaping all this?

FORDHAM: When many of these neighborhoods were retaken, people were able to get out. Bashar al-Assad's Russian allies have at times been live-streaming drone footage of this, and they say 100,000 people have escaped. And the people who are still inside, some of them probably ran away toward the rebel forces rather than toward the government side when fighting intensified. Obviously, they want to be in a safe place, but some of them don't believe that being in a government area is a safe place for them. They're afraid of being put in one of Syria's notorious jails or having to do compulsory military service, essentially switching sides.

GREENE: Is that happening? Do we know that people coming out from these rebel-held areas into government-controlled areas are facing such a terrible future? Or is there hope for some of them?

FORDHAM: We're hearing that hundreds of people have been detained. Now, the Syrian government say that these people - usually men - are being detained and they are being checked to see whether they are allied with any of the extremist rebel forces, including groups linked to al-Qaida who exist in the rebel-held part of Aleppo. But in general, the civilians who have made it into those government areas of Aleppo, reports suggest that once they're off the battlefield they are largely safe and sheltered. But that doesn't mean there aren't concerns about the behavior of Assad's forces and the militias that fight alongside them. And the United Nations' secretary general expressed concern about reports of extreme violence against civilians without specifying who was responsible yesterday. The Red Cross called for all sides to protect life.

GREENE: Alice, you say all sides there and people allied with the government have long said that these rebel groups, some of them terrorist organizations they've been called - I mean, is the U.N. saying that there are things that people on the rebel side should be doing as well to protect people?

FORDHAM: The U.N. has highlighted also unconfirmed reports of crimes committed against civilians by rebel forces inside Aleppo. And although death tolls are now harder to count, at one point during this offensive, the opposition-leaning monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 300 people had been killed - civilians had been killed - in opposition-held areas but also that more than 100 had been killed in government-held areas. That's because of indiscriminate attacks by rebel forces.

GREENE: OK, and so far no chance of a truce or some kind of deal at this point.

FORDHAM: Currently no, fighting is still ongoing.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut talking to us about the situation in eastern Aleppo. Thanks, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.