Syria's Last Rebel-Held Stronghold Braces For Attack
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Syrian government and its ally Russia are pressing on with a weeks-long campaign of airstrikes and artillery attacks on the fringes of the Idlib province in northern Syria. It's the last big rebel-held area in the country. Death tolls are unclear. It's possible dozens of people may have been killed in the last few days. And the U.N. and the U.S. warn that things could get much worse if Syrian and Russian forces begin a ground assault. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has our report.
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RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Chunks of concrete and glass fly in an artillery strike on a building in a video filmed and sent to NPR by a resident of Idlib. It's just one of the terrifying moments that face civilians as the Syrian regime and its ally Russia step up shelling and airstrikes in this northern province.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).
HALA: (Through interpreter) What have we done to deserve what has happened to Syria and to its people? If you go around Idlib, you'll see the destruction. The homes are like skeletons. There is nothing there anymore. You can see the tiredness of people.
SHERLOCK: Forty-two-year-old Hala and her teenage son have already fled three other homes seeking safety from the war. Now she lives in terror that the regime and its allies could be on the verge of a massive ground offensive.
HALA: (Through interpreter) We don't know where we will go. We've handled enough. We handled the planes and the jihadists. We can't handle this anymore - enough, enough.
SHERLOCK: Around 3 million people now live in this rural province, crammed into homes in small towns or shelters in open fields that press up against Turkey, which says it can't open its borders to more refugees. It's unclear if the Syrian regime will try to take over the whole province by force. It's signaled that it would prefer to strike deals whereby the rebels surrender and live under the government as it's done in other parts of Syria. But Raed Fares, a local community leader in a town in Idlib, says a great lot of people there can't afford to do that.
RAED FARES: Idlib has a special situation from the beginning until now. Everybody is wanted for the regime. Everybody is wanted.
SHERLOCK: Idlib is where the regime has been forcing fighters from other areas. And many think if they surrender, they'll be killed. The Syrian government and Russia say the attacks on Idlib target terrorists, but doctors say it's the civilians who suffer the most.
YOUSEF ABDALLAH: Ninety-nine percent of the casualties or let's say the collateral damage are civilians, local infrastructure, hospitals, facilities, NGO staff. So this is the case unfortunately.
SHERLOCK: Dr. Yousef Abdallah works with the Islamic Relief charity. He speaks to me from Idlib, where he says the airstrikes are targeting hospitals. Death tolls for across the province are hard to come by, but he believes that dozens have died in the last week.
ABDALLAH: The main priority for the - let's say the raids and the attacks are the civilian infrastructure, which includes the hospitals.
SHERLOCK: Three hospitals and medical centers have been hit in these recent air raids on Idlib, he says, so doctors are having to adopt ever more extreme tactics to treat patients. Islamic Relief funds a medical clinic in a cave, hoping the rocks will better protect them. And they now have operating theaters set up in trucks.
ABDALLAH: The trolley is divided into three compartments. The first one is for recovery. The second one, which is the biggest in the middle, is for surgery room - I mean the operation room. And the third compartment is for the preparation.
SHERLOCK: Abdallah says they send these trucks to places where the local medical centers have been destroyed. He doesn't know if there will be a full ground offensive. But even without it, the airstrikes hamper the group's abilities to care for the wounded. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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