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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning we're following the opening of the peace conference on Syria in which began with a series of verbal attacks. Syria's foreign minister and the leader of the opposition group representing rebels traded accusations and insults. At the heart of this conference in Switzerland is whether the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can remain in power.
The civil war is going into its third year with more than 130,000 people dead and millions more having fled their homes. As the talks began, we reached Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher in the capital, Damascus. Good morning.
SAM DAGHER: Good morning to you.
MONTAGNE: You know, I'm wondering, are people there in Damascus focused a lot on this peace conference?
DAGHER: Absolutely, Renee. People are desperate. I mean, this is a war that's had a tremendous toll on civilians.
MONTAGNE: You, in this morning's paper, The Wall Street Journal, described horrific conditions in one of those residential areas where people are trapped. Tell us what you saw.
DAGHER: It was just horrible. I mean to see some of these people who eventually came out - women who were carried on stretchers, others who could barely walk. I mean I met a woman who was 95 and she told me that kids were picking grass in order for her to eat. And then she broke down in tears. Another woman told me that she was reduced to eating cat and donkey meat.
And then she appealed to the people in Geneva who are meeting, you know, today and saying, you know, let everyone out. Let people out of this hell that we're living. You know, open the road and take food in. That was her appeal. So it was absolutely horrendous.
MONTAGNE: Because the government has been using food and medicine - withholding it - as a weapon - along, actually, though, with the other side as well.
DAGHER: It's mainly the government that's using food and medicine as a weapon of war, but rebels are doing it as well, mainly in the north of the country in places around Aleppo, where Islamist rebels are the strongest. And there they're besieging government installations, military bases, and actually not allowing any food into these places.
And also they're besieging a couple of villages that are seen as loyal to the regime.
MONTAGNE: Well, what about that? If you're talking on the battlefield who would you say at this moment in time as these peace talks begin has the upper hand between the government and these myriad rebel groups?
DAGHER: Well, I'll tell you. It's a very complex checkerboard on the ground. In central Syria the regime does have the upper hand, but it only gained this upper hand because of tremendous military help it's gotten from Iran and Hezbollah. But in other parts of the country it's certainly more complicated. In the south it's 50/50. Rebels there, mainly actually moderates who are backed by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. control almost half of the province.
In the north it is extremely complicated now with shifting battle lines. We have a mishmash of rebel groups, mainly Islamists, a couple of groups that are linked to al-Qaida, and now these rebels are fighting each other.
MONTAGNE: Well, given that the fighting is complicated - the government controls parts of the country, various rebel groups, other parts, and there seems to be at this moment in time something of a standoff, do you feel like either side wants a peace deal now? Are they tired enough? Or is this fighting going to continue?
DAGHER: I think everyone, including the regime and the fighters, want a break. Everybody has been stretched to the max. And I think maybe, sadly, we may not find the final solution but we may get a reprieve in the fighting, which will allow some humanitarian aid to get into some of these hard to reach areas. I tell you, Renee, I can't emphasize that even more, the civilians, the combatants, everybody is tired. Everybody wants a break.
MONTAGNE: That was Sam Dagher with The Wall Street Journal speaking to us from the capital of Syria, Damascus. Thank you very much.
DAGHER: My pleasure.
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