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Syrian Civilians Wait To Be Evacuated From Besieged City Of Aleppo


Deep in the annals of warfare, the fight for the Syrian city of Aleppo will stand out. It's been a years-long battle between rebel and government forces, waged across a city that was home to millions at the start. Now the government has pushed rebels into a few slivers of the city. The same goes for civilians who fled the government of Bashar al-Assad. And they face conditions so brutal that a United Nations official called it a complete meltdown of humanity. Let's talk about this with Anne Barnard. She's a New York Times reporter who covers Syria. She joins us via Skype from Beirut. Welcome back to the program.

ANNE BARNARD: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is the battle for Aleppo effectively over?

BARNARD: Well, I wouldn't say so. Actually this morning, all the remaining civilians and rebel fighters were supposed to leave on buses in an evacuation deal that was struck between Turkey and Russia, as well as the rebel groups. But so far nobody has been evacuated. The first convoy that attempted to leave was stopped by the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have been helping the Syrian government on the ground. It seems that Iran and the Syrian government were not pleased that Turkey and Russia struck a deal without them.

INSKEEP: So the rebels, if they were evacuated, would be evacuated to where and under whose custody?

BARNARD: Well, the plan - now no one knows if it's going to happen or not. The shelling has also started again. The plan was to have them all go to Idlib province, which is held by rebel groups, and from there they could go wherever they want. This was a crucial issue because many of those who have still remained inside the rebel enclave, which is shrinking and tens of thousands have already left.

Why have they stayed? Because they know that they are wanted by the government for activities like protesting or providing medical care to protesters or fighters, other activities that are viewed as terrorism by the government as well as fighters. But it's actually easier in some cases for fighters to get amnestied than for civilians involved in these activities.

INSKEEP: So Russia and Turkey, Russia being an ally of the Syrian government, arranged to get them out of there, let them go to another area that was held by rebels. But the Syrian government doesn't like this and Iran, which also backs the Syrian government, doesn't like this. This is a division among the rebel's enemies. That's what's holding up this evacuation?

BARNARD: That's what it looks like right now.

INSKEEP: You said shelling has resumed. How serious has the violence been in recent days?

BARNARD: Well, the past few days were the most shelling that people inside the rebel enclave have experienced even in four years of bombardment. They said that the pace and the intensity was something they haven't experienced before. And there was a lot of chaos as the humanitarian organizations built inside the rebel enclave over the years largely collapsed and people were not able to be rescued are treated. Bodies were piling up in the streets. Families had fled their homes and squeezed into abandoned apartments. So it was something really, really terrifying.

INSKEEP: So if the capture of Aleppo is completed, what is left of rebel movements other than ISIS and al-Nusra other than extremist groups?

BARNARD: Well, that's an interesting point. Aleppo was one of the places where the non-Nusra, non-ISIS groups were more prevalent. The majority of fighters inside the city belong to local groups that were - some of them were backed by the U.S. and its allies over the years, not enough to make a big difference it seems in the battle but enough to keep it going which a lot of Syrians say was the worst of both worlds. In any case, those groups have now lost their foothold in Syria's largest city. And they're being forced now to go to Idlib, which is ruled by much more hardline rebel groups or fragmented enclaves further in northern Aleppo.

They're going to have to find a place for themselves and there's really a question as to how much they will still exist as a coherent force. One option for them is to link up with Turkey and its operation in northern Aleppo province which drove ISIS away from the Turkish border and blocked the advance of Kurdish militias that the Turks wanted to stop from establishing an independent enclave there. That's maybe their last hope to establish a kind of space without aerial bombardments where they can set up a kind of alternate rebel governance. But again, without any major city in Syria under their control, the question is how relevant that will be.

INSKEEP: Anne Barnard of The New York Times via Skype from Beirut. Anne, thanks very much.

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

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