In Syria, Pro-Regime Forces Advance On Aleppo's Rebel Territory
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Syria, the civil war, which has been raging for more than five years, might have reached a turning point. Forces who are loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, have made a big push into rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo. And NPR's Alice Fordham has been covering this story from Beirut. Alice, good morning.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So you've been covering this war in this city for a long time now, and it sounds like this could be an important moment. What's happening?
FORDHAM: Well, as you know, Aleppo has been divided for four years into rebel-held and government-held areas. Now, Aleppo was Syria's biggest city. It's an extremely important stronghold for the rebels. What's happened more recently is that, over the last two weeks, there has been an offensive by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
And now, that seems to be really intensifying in terms of ground advances under air cover. They have taken the northern part of that rebel-held area. Bit by bit, they have moved into successive neighborhoods. They've taken areas that have been held by the rebels for four years. So this is really a huge blow to the rebellion in Syria.
GREENE: And there are thousands of civilians living in this neighborhood, right - these neighborhoods, right?
FORDHAM: Hundreds of thousands. The United Nations reckons there are 200,000 people or even more still living in eastern Aleppo. The Syrian forces and their allies have long used tactics there that hit civilian buildings and infrastructure like hospitals and apartment blocks. Life has been more than difficult there for a long time. And now we are hearing terrible, heartbreaking stories from people inside.
They are losing their homes. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the last two weeks. Their supply lines are cut off, so they're subsisting on bread or not even that. And we're seeing footage on television coming out of Syria of people escaping - tens of thousands or even more than that running away on foot into areas controlled by the government and into areas also controlled by an ethnically Kurdish faction nearby.
GREENE: Alice, let me just ask you - I mean, this bombardment has been going on for so long. Have these people just been trapped in these neighborhoods? I mean, could they have - could they have gotten out earlier to avoid this?
FORDHAM: It's a very interesting and a very sensitive question, David. So many people did leave this eastern rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo. The number of people that are there is perhaps roughly a quarter of the people that did live there. But the officials in the Assad regime say it's very simple - the rebel forces inside that area are terrorists, and they have refused to allow those last people to leave their neighborhoods and head to safety.
But we know that Assad regime statements often don't reflect reality in Syria, so we ask opposition leaders and rebels and activists and residents, why are people still living in this neighborhood when it's so difficult, it's so dangerous? And they say people there won't leave their homes because they're afraid of the regime. They are more afraid of being in a government-controlled area than they are of being bombed.
And they also say people there support the rebels. They support the opposition. They want to be there, and they are proud of them. So those are two opposing versions of what's happening there. On digging a little bit deeper, some people who know eastern Aleppo really well say, privately, well, it might be a bit of both. The rebels clearly couldn't force everyone to stay because lots of people have left.
But there have been recent accounts, for example, of civilians trying to leave eastern Aleppo and rebels saying to them at checkpoints, well, why do you want to leave? Are you with the regime? Are you a spy? And there have been reports also that are unconfirmed of rebel forces shooting at people who tried to leave through corridors that were set up by the Syrian regime and their allies. So we don't have enough evidence to conclude that rebels are definitely coercing people to stay, but I would say that we can't rule it out either.
GREENE: Well, Alice, I guess the big question - I mean, does this mean that Assad might be winning the war here?
FORDHAM: If they continue to press forward into that rebel-held area of the city of Aleppo, this will be the last really urban stronghold held by the rebels. And if they lose this, it will look a lot like they're on the way to losing the war, yes.
GREENE: OK, that's NPR's Alice Fordham reporting on the situation in Aleppo from the city of Beirut. Alice, thanks.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.
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