Islamic State Militants Add To Fears Syrians Face From Assad Regime

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Kelly McEvers talks to Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim, who's in the besieged city of Aleppo, about the state of the conflict in Syria. Erhaim is with the Syrian Institute for War and Peace Reporting.


In Iraq, U.S. airstrikes have helped push militants known as the Islamic State back from a strategic dam in the north of the country. But they still control the city of Mosul.


With so much of the focus on Iraq lately, what is sometimes forgotten is that these militants got their start in Syria. In other words, what happens in Iraq has a lot to do with what happens in Syria.

MCEVERS: So this week we're going to talk about Syria. And today, we'll focus on recent attempts by the Islamic State to take territory north of the Syrian city of Aleppo - most importantly, a key border crossing between Syria and Turkey that the so-called moderate rebels have controlled for years. These rebels are seen as the best hope to fight the Islamic State in Syria. We asked Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, to explain what losing the border crossing would mean.

CHARLES LISTER: The moderate opposition in northern Syria is almost entirely reliant, at the moment, on its ability to continue to receive both money and military supplies from southern Turkey. And if that was to be cut off, the chances of the moderate opposition to retain a genuinely influential role in the northern insurgency would begin to decline very, very steeply.

MCEVERS: So what about the people in Aleppo? How would they be affected if the Islamic State were to take this border crossing and the towns north of the city?

I put that question to Zaina Erhaim. She's an activist and the project coordinator for the Syrian Institute for War and Peace Reporting. We reached her in a part of Aleppo that's still controlled by the rebels.

ZAINA ERHAIM: We all freaked out when we know that they took over Eritrea (ph) which is the village I passed a couple of days ago when I came from Turkey to here. So knowing that they took over the village was very scary. We felt that we're now circled by the regime at the first and then by the ISIS groups. Most of the activists and key figures opposing the Assad regime are actually wanted for both the regime and ISIS. So we do feel threatened exactly the same from both the regime and ISIS.

MCEVERS: So on one side, you're sort of hemmed in by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and on the other side by these militants with the group called the Islamic State, right?

ERHAIM: Yeah, exactly. They have the same blacklist if we can call it like that.

MCEVERS: What does that mean?

ERHAIM: We're going to be killed - beheaded and thrown into the streets. There is no other answer for that. We know that there is no kind of compromise whatsoever.

MCEVERS: What would be considered your crime?

ERHAIM: First, we're activists. Second, we're journalists or citizen journalists, whatever. And third, we oppose them.

MCEVERS: And how many rebel fighters of the free Syrian army are still inside Aleppo? You say they're trying to hold the line now - right now. Approximately how many are still there in the city?

ERHAIM: As far as I know, many actually went to the northern suburb, to Marea (ph) and to the nearby towns. I have some fighters who are there. They're telling me that we count the bullets that we have. So they're very poorly equipped. So if this case kept as it is, I believe they will get us. It's a matter of time.

MCEVERS: And so what are the people in Aleppo doing now? Are people preparing to leave? Do they feel like ISIS is going to eventually make it into the city?

ERHAIM: We're still out a little bit far from where battles are happening, but those who are in the towns nearby - like I know people have - many families have fled Marea (ph) and fled Katrin (ph) or other areas which are closed where ISIS is taking over. But for Aleppo, I think, as we are, they will wait until they're very close.

MCEVERS: What are people saying about it?

ERHAIM: The main matter is for us as activists, as journalists and fighters - it's life or death. They wouldn't let us just live.

MCEVERS: Zaina Erhaim is an activist and a journalist with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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