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Politics & Government

To Understand The Exodus Of Syrians, Just Look At Aleppo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly half a million migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe so far this year. By far, most of them are from Syria. One of the big questions in this crisis is why this is happening now after more than four years of civil war. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on a country that has lost hope.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To understand what Syria's become, let's take just one city, its largest, Aleppo, famous for centuries for merchants selling carpets, fabrics and jewelry. Five years ago, it had grand old buildings, leafy squares and a vast market beneath an ancient walled citadel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORDHAM: That market has been a battlefield for three years now. The city is divided between rebels, like the ones who uploaded this footage, and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. This man lives in a regime-held area.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Today, we are living in Aleppo. And we are in a safe area, and we receive more than 100 shells in these safe areas.

FORDHAM: He wouldn't give his name because he fears the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the security situation in general, but the other conditions of life are not very easy. For example, we are living without water.

FORDHAM: After years of armed groups cutting off their enemy's water supplies, there's hardly any piped water in the city. Electricity comes on for maybe an hour a few times a week.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's why I think that any person or any human being who is living in these harsh condition - of course he will think about fleeting out of the city.

FORDHAM: He says apartment blocks stand half empty now. Many with the money to leave have moved on along with young men who fear conscription. Everyone, he says, lost hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Who left the country will not return back again to his country again because no one has hope. And I think that after losing hope, it is very difficult to rebuild hope to return back to Syria.

FORDHAM: And that's the government-side of Aleppo. On the Eastern side, which is held by rebel forces, things are a lot worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.

FORDHAM: The Syrian air force strikes residential neighborhoods, leveling whole blocks, here recorded in another amateur video.

MOHAMMED AL-KHATEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: When NPR reached journalist Mohammed al-Khateeb by Skype there one day last week, he said 45 people had been killed that day in bombings and shelling, and that's pretty normal.

AL-KHATEEB: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "Mostly, it's the poorest who remain," he says, "unable to join the hundreds of thousands who've fled." And in the rural areas around Aleppo, it's also divided into pockets of al-Qaida control, a few U.S.-backed groups and others. Further east, ISIS territory begins. And that's the story of Syria.

Across the country, Assad's air force is responsible for the vast majority of civilian killings according to rights groups. While on the ground, neither regime nor rebels nor extremists have the upper hand. The state has crumbled. Some places are besieged by rebels, some by the regime. A British-Syrian doctor named Rola Hallam tells NPR her family, originally from the city of Homs, has been displaced five times.

ROLA HALLAM: Syrians don't want to leave Syria. Syrians want to stay at home. But when you leave people no choice but to either be one of the quarter-of-a-million who are killed or the million who remained or the 12 million who are homeless or the half-million who are being starved under these sieges, then all you get left with is a choice of getting into a rubber dingy and maybe making it to a European shore.

FORDHAM: What many Syrians say is also driving the exodus is a feeling there's no end in sight. Assad is supported by Iran and by Russia, which last week stationed warplanes there. Rebels receive funding too, and ISIS generates its own revenue. Everyone can keep fighting. Some think the U.S. could be doing more to end the war. Here's former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Ryan Crocker.

RYAN CROCKER: The Russians have a strategy, and that is to do whatever it takes to back up Bashar al-Assad. We don't have a strategy.

FORDHAM: Crocker calls for the U.S. to create a no-fly zone and prevent Assad's airstrikes against civilians. But most analysts think with Assad's air force now bolstered by Russia, that's less likely to happen than ever. The war and the exodus seem set to continue. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.