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Syrian Opposition Fighters Withdraw From Stronghold In Idlib Province


In Syria, the northwestern province of Idlib hosts over a million refugees from other parts of the country. Now it is also the focus of a sustained military attack. After eight years of civil war, this is the last province held by opposition rebels in the country. Hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting and in air raids carried out by the Syrian regime and its allies recently. And now the government seems close to taking a key opposition town.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from Beirut. Hi there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: So what town are we talking about, and why is it so crucial?

SHERLOCK: Well, so this is the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which has been controlled by rebels for most of the war. And it's really strategically located near this highway that links the major city of Aleppo with the capital, Damascus. That's a big reason why the government wants it back. But it's also symbolically a big coup if the regime takes it, good for boosting the morale of troops. You know, Khan Sheikhoun was the site of a chemical weapons attack in 2017. And it was that attack that prompted President Trump to attack - launch airstrikes in Syria.

GREENE: Well, all this is happening in a province that, I mean, as I mentioned, doesn't just have civilians. It's also an area where people who have fled fighting in other parts of the country have come trying to find peace. So how is this all affecting the population right now?

SHERLOCK: Well, that's right. As you said, David, there's over a million refugees from other parts of the country as well as the domestic population in this area. And they are fleeing ever further north, but they're coming up against the Turkish border, which is closed. And there's not much elsewhere to go.

And, you know, aid agencies are overwhelmed. So there are people taking up residence in schools. But a lot of these schools have also been destroyed in the fighting. So you have people literally living under olive trees in the kind of olive groves of this rural province.

GREENE: And I know you're trying to talk to people there to get a real feel for what's happening. You spoke to a doctor in one of the hospitals. What did he tell you?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So we're going to identify him as Dr. Ahmed (ph) because doctors have been targeted in the war, so he felt quite unsafe. He's in one of the main remaining hospitals in Idlib province.

DR AHMED: All the medical centers and the hospitals in the south of Idlib and in north of Hama now are destroyed totally. We lost a lot of people because there is no medical service in this place.

SHERLOCK: So a lot of the medical clinics near the frontlines, near the areas in the towns near where the fighting has been taking place, have been destroyed, have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes. And he says, you know, as well as civilians who die because they don't have access to medical care, about 20 medical staff have been killed since the offensive began in April - a lot of those are his friends.

Then he had to cut the call suddenly because an ambulance pulled up at the hospital and he had to go. And a little while later, he sent me a photo of these two children - a young boy and a girl. He says they were the people in the ambulance, both had these terrible shrapnel wounds. And it looks like the boy is pretty close to death.

GREENE: Oh, God. When is this going to end? Aren't there a lot of countries that are - that say, at least, they want peace in Syria?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. The Syrian regime is backed by Russia and Iran. Turkey is backed by the opposition rebels. Russia and Turkey have been trying to negotiate some kind of cease fire in this area. but so far, all those efforts have failed.

GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Beirut. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.