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Syria Could Be Facing Its Worst Humanitarian Crisis. But It's Not Always Page 1 News


Syria is, again, in the headlines because of rising tensions between Turkey and Russia after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike. And Bashar Assad's regime is closing in on the rebels last stronghold, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, creating another humanitarian crisis. That said, as soon as Syria gets the world's attention, it's buried again by other news stories. That's been the pattern for nearly a decade. Liz Sly has covered Syria for The Washington Post since the beginning of the conflict there. She joins us from Beirut, Lebanon. Welcome.

LIZ SLY: Hello. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So why is this offensive happening right now in Idlib? it's in northwest Syria. The population's mostly children. Give us some context for how we got here.

SLY: Well, as you said, there's been a war going on for nearly 10 years now. It all began when people began to stage demonstrations against the government. The government responded with force. The people took up weapons. Suddenly, there were rebels. And that snatched pretty much half of the country. And since then, we've seen the government in Damascus, Assad's government, steadily and slowly but surely claw back every city, every province from the rebels. And now you have this last enclave in Idlib, which is the last holdout of the rebels. And the Assad government has decided it wants it back.

FADEL: Now, you started covering this conflict before it was a conflict, when a few kids spray-painted anti-government graffiti on a wall in the spring of 2011. When you started covering this, did you expect it to turn the way it's turned?

SLY: I don't think anybody thought we'd still be covering the Syrian revolution or war 10 years on. I don't think anybody thought it would become as violent and bloody as this. But each year that has passed, it's just seemed to get worse and worse. And just when you think it can't get any worse, something worse happens. And that's sort of where we are today as well with this nearly 1 million people being squeezed into a tiny area, freezing to death, no shelter, no food and nowhere to go. And it's yet another low for this conflict. So...

FADEL: So how do you keep people's attention? And how do you get this message across when you've been telling the story and new lows for nearly a decade?

SLY: Well, you try wherever is possible to humanize that story. We've been talking to people about the situation that they're in. Now, when you talk to them, it's really striking how desperate people are that their stories be told and that they be heard. They really feel that they've been completely forgotten by the world, that nobody does care about them. And it's very, very hard to keep that attention. It did look like people were starting to take notice of Idlib because - simply because of the numbers. But you've now got coronavirus spreading through the world. And the needle is swinging away from interest in this story again.

FADEL: Covering Syria for so long, you must have personal connections with a lot of the people that you talk to on a daily basis. Can you talk about sort of the emotional investment of covering a story like this?

SLY: I think the worst part of it is knowing that you actually can't do anything. We like to think we make a difference. We like to think people read our stories, and it has an impact. And what we've seen with Syria is that whatever we say doesn't make a difference. And it doesn't move the needle. And the world isn't moved to care. And in fact, it's being moved to care less and less the conflict has worn on. And so when I speak to people, I feel almost a profound sense of guilt that I'm in a position of privilege talking to them from outside the country. I'm OK. I'm not going to starve to death. I'm not going to freeze to death. I'm not going to be bombed in my home tonight. But I'm asking you to talk to me about what that's like. And actually the act of doing that - I can't do anything to help you.

FADEL: That's gut-wrenching, though. How do you keep doing it?

SLY: Because you know that looking away isn't a solution either - and that's what people don't want you to do, which is look away. So you actually put yourself in a position where you have - you can't look away. And you also can't do anything. But stopping isn't the answer.

FADEL: Liz Sly has covered Syria for The Washington Post for nearly a decade. Thank you so much.

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