DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Over the last few days, Syria's government and its allies have begun an offensive in northern Syria that the United Nations is warning could become a bloodbath. This is in the last major rebel-held area, the province of Idlib. But the area's also home to millions of civilians, many of them refugees who fled fighting in other parts of the country. And already, dozens of people have been killed here.
NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now to talk about the situation. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: So there have been warnings for some time now that the Assad regime was finally going to put the squeeze on this last province, right? Is that what's happening?
GREENE: What's the latest here?
SHERLOCK: Yeah, that's right. So the regime has said that it wants to take every inch of Syria back. And for a long time, it was focusing on other areas and using this province, Idlib, as a kind of dumping ground where it would send rebel fighters who surrendered in these other parts. But now it's turning on Idlib. So there's these massive convoys of tanks and artillery and fighters amassing on its southern border. Shelling has started. And it's estimated that dozens of people have been killed already just over the weekend. And the regime is dropping these leaflets saying - you know, urging people to give up their weapons and surrender.
GREENE: I'm curious about Russia's involvement here. I mean, it seems like each time the regime has gone in to take back areas, Russia has been right with the Assad regime. Is that happening again?
SHERLOCK: Well, here it's a little bit more - a little bit different. So the Russians had indicated that they preferred a negotiated solution. So the thing about this area is you have millions of refugees, and they are pressing up against the border with Turkey. Turkey is heavily involved here. It's got troops with observation posts all across the southern fringes of Idlib. So it's very, very complicated, very, very dangerous. And Russia thinks, you know, it'd be very, very costly to try to take it militarily. So it is trying to come up with some sort of negotiated solution.
One option might be what happened in southern - the southern parts of Syria when the regime took that back by turning some of the more moderate elements of the rebel opposition kind of into its ranks and getting them to fight the kind of harder-line extremist groups that all exist in this area.
So it's all very tense, very dangerous and very complicated. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is going to Turkey this week to have discussions about this and about peace talks to happen between Turkey, Russia, Germany and France.
GREENE: So peace talks - I mean, we've seen them before obviously in this conflict and heard about them. They don't always lead to much. Is - are these potentially significant?
SHERLOCK: Well, it's - you're seeing a merging of different processes here. In the past, Western countries have tended to try to kind of have their peace talks. The Russians have led a separate effort. So here it is significant that these are merging. Russia's primary interest is reconstruction here. They say that it's going to take something like $450 billion to rebuild Syria.
I reached out to Salman Shaikh, who's - who runs a political consultancy and mediates talks on Syria. He says it's a positive first step. But for Western powers to take part in reconstruction, there has to be a serious, inclusive constitution and a plan for elections.
SALMAN SHAIKH: Until we are not able to create a safe, neutral space for them to take part in the design of their future country, I'm afraid we're going to have a weak, divided, broken Syria with all sorts of potential for trouble in the future.
SHERLOCK: So he says this effort has to be genuine. Syrians have to believe in the process. If not, the war will just keep going.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Ruth Sherlock - thanks so much, Ruth. We appreciate it.
SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.
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