Last Rebel Stronghold In Syria May Fall To Government Troops

Freelance journalist Petra Ramsauer tells Steve Inskeep about conditions in Aleppo, once Syria's commercial center. The city is partly held by rebel forces but government troops are gaining ground.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Serious rebels are in danger of losing the city of Aleppo. They've held a portion of that major city for many months. Now some rebels say they're losing ground to government forces. One activist told the Associated Press, if Aleppo falls, the Syrian uprising does to. Petra Ramsauer is an Austrian journalist who just spent three days reporting from inside the city. She's on the line from Turkey. Welcome to the program.

PETRA RAMSAUER: Hello.

INSKEEP: How bad is it for the rebels?

RAMSAUER: Well, it's terribly bad. So I talked to one commander who is in charge of the frontline in the old city, which is the most important frontline the rebels are holding right now. He would tell me that the danger of losing Aleppo is imminent. And given that, usually, those people are supposed to boost the morale of the troop - then, at least, pretend that they're still able to win a fight. I think this tells you a lot about the low morale. The problem is, they tell me, they simply cannot cope with two front simultaneously. So ISIS is fighting them from behind the (unintelligible) and from the front. And recently, ISIS brought in heavy artillery humvees, et cetra, from Iraq into Syria, and they're gaining lots and lots of ground. So these rebels have squeezed and on top of things, they spotted many Hezbollah troops now guarding the (unintelligible). So they're afraid of losing it in next days, actually.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out what's going on there. I do understand that ISIS, like a number of extremist groups in Iraq, wants to control the rebellion and has attacked other rebels in the past. But would they really go to the extreme of so damaging rebels that they would lose control of the most important city where they've had a foothold?

RAMSAUER: Absolutely because - they would sort of create their caliphate including Aleppo. And just yesterday, one rebel told me that after the fight against ISIS, ISIS troops would secretly sneak into the camp and behead six of them. So ISIS is now really trying to win first the rebels and then try to defeat (unintelligible) that's what they're thinking. This is the reason why Hezbollah is now showing up because they are very much afraid that ISIS will run over Aleppo, Aleppo Province, and, like, try to sneak into Lebanon. What we are seeing right now is a two-front war. And it's very, very hard to see predict how this is going to turn out for the rebels.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Hezbollah. Of course, that is the Lebanese militia, the Shiite militias that has come in on the side of the Syrian government. So have the rebels physically lost ground? If you were to look at the frontline, it is blocks further back than it was a few days or weeks ago?

RAMSAUER: Well, they definitely lost ground. They lost some crucial abilities. They lost the very, very important suburb of Aleppo, which is called (unintelligible). This is the industrial town. This was taken over by the Assad government. They lost several villages to ISIS. But when it comes to the city of Aleppo, the prospect is really grim, and there is a strong influx of refugees right now out of Aleppo. There's still some people inside. The rate of barrel bombs have increased dramatically. They throw like 30 barrel bombs from the sky on a daily pieces recently. So the air company is flying - is increasingly. Many people are dying. Like, 20 people died on average recently. Right now, when I was there, we counted up to 55 dead people. This is like an endless nightmare. You, like, see a tiny spot on the sky and you can figure out because you hear the sound of the helicopter that this is going to be a barrel bomb. You cannot tell where it will land. And after seeing this bomb, it give you, like, 20 seconds to figure out well, there's going to be an impact soon, but you cannot run away because you don't know where to run to. So one woman tells me it just gives you enough time to say goodbye toy our life. And if you're doing this, like, four times a day, you will be devastated. And even if you're alive, your home is destroyed.

INSKEEP: So if Aleppo were to fall to the forces of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, what would be left of the rebel movement?

RAMSAUER: It will be finished. Many of the rebels I've talked to are very depressed. They have a passionate hatred against ISIS. They believe Isis has destroyed the revolution. When they talk about Assad, they say it's a criminal and they are very cold-blooded. But when it comes to ISIS, they say they have destroyed the revolution and this is what it is, the end of the revolution.

INSKEEP: Peta Ramsauer is an Austrian journalist. She was recently in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Thanks very much.

RAMSAUER: Thank you.

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