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Syrian Civilians Are In The Path Of The Battle Against Last Rebel-Held Area

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Forces loyal to Syria's government are bombing a rebel province. It's the last major rebel-held province, Idlib. If you look on a map of Syria, which I'm doing right now, it's up near the border with Turkey. Negotiations last week to prevent this assault failed, leaving millions of civilians possibly in the path of the offensive. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has covered the Syrian war for years. She's in Beirut.

Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How has this offensive unfolded?

SHERLOCK: Well, in the past week has been an intensification of shelling and airstrikes on the southern fringes of this province, on towns and villages. And people, as you say, are afraid that this could be a prelude to a full-scale attack. Local medical workers and activists say a hospital was amongst the sites hit. And medical points have been hit so frequently in the Syrian war - this isn't a new thing - that now some people are treating civilians in clinics they've set up in caves. We reached out to Karima Hamida (ph), who's this older lady who lives in Kafr Zita, one of the towns that's been targeted in recent days.

KARIMA HAMIDA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here she's saying the bombs are falling on civilians. She and others are trying to cram into underground shelters or flee the town. But one of the major problems here is, where should these people go?

INSKEEP: And the sheer number of people who would need shelter. I'm thinking there must not only be many residents of Idlib, there must be people who have fled Bashar al-Assad's government from elsewhere in the country who are trying to take shelter there.

SHERLOCK: Exactly. About - more than a million people have fled. So they're saying that there's now - the United Nations says there's about 3 million people living in this area. A lot of these people have lost everything. And they've fled several times, moving from other parts of the country. And now they're pressing up against this border with Turkey. They live in camps in open fields. Turkey is already hosting 3 1/2 million refugees. And they say, we can't open our borders. So these people are trapped there.

INSKEEP: I guess this would explain why Turkey was one of the countries that tried to prevent this offensive.

SHERLOCK: That's right. Turkey is very heavily invested in this area. It funds rebel group (inaudible) area. It has troops there. And it's very concerned about the potential humanitarian catastrophe here and the spillover from that. So it's been trying to take these talks on with Russia and Iran, those allies of the Syrian government. They've tried to reach a cease-fire deal. But so far, that hasn't happened. But talks are continuing. So as I said, they've beefed up their defenses inside this area.

And there's growing calls to try to stop this. You know, there's many ways that this offensive could play out. It's not necessarily a given that this will happen in the terrible way that people are saying it could. The U.N. has been unequivocal, saying if it does happen, it could be the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.

INSKEEP: Wow - which is saying something, seeing the history that we've lived through the last few years. What, if anything, is the United States' role?

SHERLOCK: Well, President Trump has warned the Assad regime not to recklessly attack Idlib. But in terms of action, the U.S. has struck an agreement with Britain and France. They're saying that they would punish any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Chemical weapons - chlorine gas has been used several times in Idlib. But people we've spoken to say, you know, that's not the major problem. It's terrifying, but the majority of people are dying in conventional bombing. And at the moment, there doesn't seem to be a plan for that. So at the moment, the focus really rests on what agreement, if any, can be struck between Turkey and Assad's ally Russia.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.