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Syria's Latest Disaster: A Clash With Turkey That's Displaced 600,000


Around 600,000 civilians have fled their homes in Syria's Idlib province in recent weeks, since Syrian and Turkish forces started fighting for control of the territory. The battle between the two sides has caused a humanitarian crisis, and it shows no signs of winding down.

We have Associated Press reporter Bassem Mroue joining us from Beirut, Lebanon. He's been reporting on the Syrian conflict since the start of the civil war, and he joins us now. Thank you so much.

BASSEM MROUE: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us what the conditions are like for civilians trying to flee. Are the roads even safe?

MROUE: Over the past two weeks, the situation has worsened a lot, with intense bombardment and a crushing government offensive that has captured more than 100 towns, villages and hamlets. The civilian population is taking the worst hit. Since December 1, when the bombing began, we have some 600,000 people, half of them children - have been fleeing to areas further north, toward the Turkish border. And extreme weather condition - it's cold. It's raining. They have - basically leaving their homes to go stay in tent settlements that are miles away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that must be incredibly difficult, considering that we've seen such a displacement of people in the civil war. But 600,000 at once - I mean, that's a big movement of people.

MROUE: It is. Well, Idlib, where most of the fighting is taking place at the present time, is the last rebel stronghold in the country. And it's home to some 3 million people. Many of them have been displaced from other parts of the country. Their life has been moving from one misery to another.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The situation is very dire.

MROUE: Yeah. The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, told the United Nations this week that what's happening in Idlib is - he called it, quote, "a humanitarian catastrophe." And he urged for an immediate cease-fire. But it doesn't look like it because, as we speak now, the offensive is still ongoing, and the Syrian troops have captured more areas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Syria's obviously trying to capture Idlib. It's the last rebel stronghold, as you mention. And their hope is, obviously, to end this conflict once and for all. What are Turkish troops doing there? Why is this territory significant for them?

MROUE: This area is very significant to Turkey because Idlib borders Turkey. And the Turks are worried that if the government keep going on in their offensive till the end, this will trigger a refugee crisis into Turkey. Turkey is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and they cannot take more. So they want to make sure that they are there in case the government tries to move ahead with the offensive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are there U.S. troops that are in the area?

MROUE: The last time we heard, there were U.S. troops. That was in October, when special forces killed the founder and leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was killed in an area in Idlib near the Turkish border, where he was hiding.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question. We've been hearing for a long time that the Syrian conflict might be in its end stages, that Bashar al-Assad, with the support from Iran and from Russia, might actually be able to end the conflict. Where do things stand right now in the grand scheme of things?

MROUE: Well, that's the thing. I mean, Idlib is going to be - if - whenever the government retakes it, it's going to mark the end of the opposition because then the rest of the country that's not under government control will be under the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. And President Assad himself repeated it several times that they will eventually get back all the land they lost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the Associated Press's Bassem Mroue. Thank you so much.

MROUE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.