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Syrian Regime Advances On Idlib Province


In Syria, so much of the focus in recent years has been on the fight against ISIS there. But the country is also ensnared in a civil war that's been going on for seven years. Over half a million people have been killed, and more than half of the country's population has been displaced.

Now a new phase of this war is unleashing even more horrors on the civilians there. A rebel-held province called Idlib, in the north of Syria, had become a place for civilians to find refuge from other parts of the country. Over Christmas, it became the focus of a new offensive by the Syrian government, fighting to take the territory back.

Here to explain this more, NPR's correspondent Ruth Sherlock who is on the line from Beirut. Hi, Ruth.


MARTIN: Ruth, if you could, just first explain a little more about Idlib province. Syrians were fleeing there from other places. Right?

SHERLOCK: Exactly. So this has been a heartland for people who oppose Bashar al-Assad - for rebels who oppose the regime. And they took it pretty early on in the war. And it's one of the last major holdouts now. As the government takes territory back, this is kind of one of the last places left for the opposition. And as part of the process of taking this territory back, the government has been offering these kind of cease fire deals - where it won territory in other parts of the country, it allowed people to flee to Idlib.

So it became a sort of uneasy safe haven. And in the last year, over a million people have fled to this area. Often they've got nothing. They leave their homes. They don't know where they're going. They don't know what to expect when they get there. But at least it was sort of safe.

MARTIN: So this was supposed to be a refuge. That's what people thought it was going to be for them. And now the Assad regime has launched an offensive there. What is that looking like?

SHERLOCK: Well, exactly. So this started just before Christmas, and it's been going at a ferocious rate. There's been - they've taken about 12 - no, 14 - sorry - villages and towns recently in the southern part of the province. Looks like they're going for a strategic air base called Abu al-Duhur. And there's also a key highway that links Damascus to northern parts of the country, which is very important for the regime. But they are extremely reliant on airpower. And a lot of it is indiscriminate, and it's hitting civilian areas.

We spoke with Ahmed Al-Sheykoun who's a White Helmets member. That's a kind of volunteer emergency services. They dig people out of the rubble. And he was just talking about airstrikes. Listen to what happened next.

AHMED AL-SHEYKOUN: (Speaking Arabic).


SHERLOCK: That's an airstrike that hit just close to him. This was one of several that night - just a tiny snapshot of what it's like there.

MARTIN: Wow. As you were talking to him, another airstrike happened.

SHERLOCK: Exactly.

MARTIN: So what have you been able to discern about how civilians are coping?

SHERLOCK: It's pretty dire. You know, people who fled to Idlib now having to move again - the U.N. says there's about 70,000 people that have upped sticks in Idlib and are trying to move closer to the border to the northern parts that are safer. That's on the border with Turkey.

I spoke to an aid worker yesterday. He was just overwhelmed. He said, you know, the roads are jammed up. There's lines and lines of cars crammed full of people with whatever possessions they can find. And villages are emptying out. They had prepared some camps for more people to come from other cease fires from other parts of the country, but they say they're not prepared for this.

MARTIN: There's a lot of imprints in Syria when it comes to international players - the U.S., Iran, Russia. What are you hearing in terms of international reaction?

SHERLOCK: The extra complexity is that Idlib was a de-escalation zone. That's one of the zones that was set in these Russian-led peace talks to try to kind of quieten the fighting in the war. Turkey has responded furiously, saying - you know, this is a violation of that zone, of this kind of cease fire, of end of fighting. So they've summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors today to talk to them about that.

But it's unclear if it's going to make a difference. You know, the regime - it's a part of a pattern that the government has of making military gains on the ground ahead of peace talks to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thanks, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.