RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The self-styled Islamic State has carried out spectacular and very public acts of violence these past few months. It's all part of the Islamic State's media campaign that's dominated news from the Middle East. But other actors in the region are taking advantage of the distraction created by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and continuing their own brutal assaults - case in point, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. NPR's Alice Fordham follows Iraq and Syria and joins us now from Beirut. Good morning.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, it can be argued that the Islamic State, or ISIS, emerged from Syria's civil war. That civil war's about to mark its fourth anniversary, and it's receded somewhat into the background. So would you mind bringing us up-to-date?
FORDHAM: Well, throughout those four years and up until now, we consistently hear that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are killing and besieging civilians. A report by Amnesty International said that over the course of the year, 8,000 civilians had been killed in indiscriminate bombing and attacks. Human Rights Watch responded to a flat denial from Assad that his forces used barrel bombs, those improvised weapons made from barrels and stuffed with shrapnel or nails. And when I met recently a man named Jan Egeland, who's from the Norwegian Refugee Council, he said about 200,000 people are under siege in Syria, most of them besieged by Assad's forces. He thought not enough attention was being paid to this.
JAN EGELAND: Beyond any doubt at all, the Islamic State, ISIS, has taken too much attention, in my view. They are part of the problem. They are not the problem.
MONTAGNE: So in this context, ISIS not the problem. We're talking here about Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. How hard is it to get hold of people near areas that are controlled by his regime?
FORDHAM: Yeah, well, we can do it sometimes. Recently, we spoke with a doctor still working in a rebellious area east of Damascus, which has been besieged and bombarded for about a year and a half now. There are certainly rebel fighters in there, but lots of civilians, too. And the doctor told us he feels the media focuses on anything that ISIS does, and he said the world is too busy fighting terrorism to care about civilians killed by barrel bombs.
MONTAGNE: And are there any initiatives that look like they could bring an end to this violence?
FORDHAM: The current U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, proposed a plan for a freeze in the really fierce fighting, which has been happening around the northern city of Aleppo. It has some similarity to small cease-fires that have happened, the idea that it's done on a broader scale. But when I spoke with the analyst Emile Hokayem, he said the Syrians he'd spoken to saw a lot of problems with this.
EMILE HOKAYEM: The problem is that those cease-fires are the result of horrific sieges and starvation. It seems to be rewarding Assad for his strategy.
FORDHAM: And some people even see this proposal as a step toward legitimizing Assad, him becoming accepted by the West again. So the proposal is still on the table, but some prominent opposition figures have said that they won't accept it.
MONTAGNE: Alice, thanks very much.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Alice Fordham. She was speaking to us from Beirut.
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