ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Syrian military backed by Russia is intensifying a deadly assault against the last rebel-held province in Syria. It's a major escalation. Air bombardments and ground fighting have destroyed civilian areas. More than 40,000 people have fled in the past four days, according to U.N. officials. The new military push comes after a ceasefire announced by Russia and Turkey fell apart within days. NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring the fighting from Beirut.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: This offensive has been going on for months but is now intensifying. What is the latest?
AMOS: Well, first, I want to talk about the civilians. I've seen social media posts all day of these huge traffic jams on the highway north. Families, frightened kids, cars piled with mattresses and blankets, 400,000 displaced in the last four months - and these are people who have already been displaced from other areas in Syria. This is a huge humanitarian challenge likely to get worse because as the fighting continues and it appears the Syrian regime intends to recapture this entire province, civilians in other areas are not waiting around to see what happens. They're packing up. They're heading close to the Turkish border. Some of them are going to Idlib city, which is the capital city. But that's - the Turkish border's as far as they can get because that border's closed.
SHAPIRO: Explain why this particular battle is important.
AMOS: So the fighting is mainly around a town called Maarat al-Numan. It's an important rebel town. Now, these are jihadis, Islamist radicals, and the town has been highly symbolic for them. The regime claims that anyone who lived in this town is a terrorist. Now it's a ghost town. Just the fighters are left. But the offensive has been so intense that even U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Russia and Syria to stop so that this humanitarian crisis can be mitigated. I read a U.N. report today that said 26 communities have been affected by airstrikes, including schools, hospitals, markets. These places are becoming uninhabitable, so that's the other reason that civilians are leaving.
SHAPIRO: So you have these tens of thousands of people trying to get out, heading to the border with Turkey. What are they encountering there?
AMOS: Well, for most of them, these are people that have nowhere else to go. So for years in this conflict, Idlib was the last refuge not just for the fighters but for activists, journalists, humanitarian workers. All of these people could be subject to arrest if the Syrian regime takes over the province again. Now the Turkish border is closed, so they're stuck. Turkey already has about 3 million Syrian refugees. They don't want any more. Aid groups are sending tents, winter kits, hygiene kits. But the numbers are overwhelming. There's more than 3 million civilians in Idlib province.
SHAPIRO: Pull back and give us the context of this battle in the larger civil war that's been raging for years. Is this kind of the final stand of the rebels?
AMOS: So it's certainly the beginning of what could be the last battle for Idlib. The fighting is heavier. The airstrikes are heavier. There's been a winter offensive for a number of years, but maybe this is the final push because it looks like what the regime is doing is testing rebel defenses. And the regime's strategy appears to be depopulation. What they're doing is they're driving civilians out of areas even where there are no fighters. But I don't know if it's the beginning of the end of the war. There's still a part of northeast Syria that's out of government control. That's where a small contingent of U.S. military still resides. There's other parts of Syria east of Idlib controlled by Turkey. So the next thing to watch is Idlib city. It's the capital. It's now densely packed, and more civilians are at risk.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut, thank you.
AMOS: Thank you.
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