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With Idlib Province Under Fire, A Major Humanitarian Crisis In Syria


The Syrian civil war has been going on for nearly nine years, but U.N. officials fear the worst humanitarian crisis so far is happening right now. And that's in Idlib, the last rebel-held province. Syrian troops and the Russian air force are attempting to retake Idlib, and they've made some strategic gains. Their offensive, using airstrikes and ground troops, has killed over a thousand civilians and displaced more than half a million. And now Turkey is threatening to advance on the area. NPR's Deb Amos joins us now from Beirut. And, Deb, to start, there's actually been some diplomatic activity - right? - and more threats. What more have you learned?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: So today, the U.S. sent an envoy to the Turkish capital, and that's after a Russian delegation failed to come to any agreement with the Turks. Nothing is changing on the ground. Airstrikes continued. More civilians are fleeing. For all sides, Idlib is the last chapter of this war. The Syrian government wants to recapture the province. They want to drive the rebels out. But this latest offensive has only managed to secure about 25% of rebel-held territory, say analysts.

The campaign is particularly tough on civilians because Russian airpower compensates for the weakness of the Syrian army. So hospitals, schools, bakeries have all been targeted, and it appears to be a strategy to drive civilians out. And that's why so many are headed to the Turkish border. Human rights groups, the U.N., they have been raising the alarm for weeks.

CORNISH: Can we talk more about these civilians then? You've been able to reach some people who have fled. What are they telling you?

AMOS: We can reach Idlib because the Internet is still working. Today, I spoke with Abdul Coffey al-Hamdo (ph). He's an English teacher. He's already been displaced once. He's now living about 20 miles from the Turkish border with his wife and his 4-year-old daughter.

ABDUL COFFEY AL-HAMDO: My village has been attacked with two rockets. Fortunately, none has been killed, but some people were injured. We are so confused. I can't think very well.

AMOS: He said his daughter's birthday is today, but there's nothing to celebrate. Al-Hamdo says he was so worried about the rockets, about the safety of his family and his friends that he forgot what he was supposed to buy at the market today. But he did notice that he was the only one there.

AL-HAMDO: The streets are almost without people but those who are fleeing, I mean, on foot, with cars. This is (unintelligible) situation here. People, in fact, just are fleeing. They think that it's the doomsday. It's about six below zero. That's really horrible.

AMOS: Again, that's Abdul Coffey al-Hamdo. He says his car is packed. He may move his family further north. A hundred thousand people have moved in the past week, more than half a million since December, but there is no more room for them to shelter. And children are dying in the freezing cold.

CORNISH: I want to come back to all the players here, right? It's a rebel-held province. There are Syrian troops and the Russian air force who are involved and now Turkey. What's going on?

AMOS: So Turkey has had 12 observation posts inside Syria. Russia agreed to this in 2017. They also agreed to a cease-fire in January. But last week, Turkish soldiers were killed. The Turks retaliated against the Syrian military. That's a very dangerous escalation. It's why a Russian delegation was in Ankara and there was a U.S. one today. Turkey has been emboldened by U.S. support. The Turkish president threatened to drive this Russian-backed Syrian army out of the province. But at the same time, the Turks don't want to alienate the Russians. Everything in Syria gets complicated by outside powers, and it's the civilians who pay the price.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thank you.

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

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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