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A Syrian cease-fire aimed to stop the violence. Instead, more bombed buildings and body bags

The 3 million people who live in Syria's Idlib province were supposed to be protected under a cease-fire agreement struck this fall by Turkey and Russia. But today many are living without the most basic services and still facing attacks. Nick Schifrin reports on life and the lack of hope in the country’s final rebel stronghold.

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  • William Brangham:

    In September, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement calling for a cease-fire in Idlib province in Northern Syria.

    Both countries were supposed to guarantee that attacks inside Idlib would be avoided. There are an estimated three million people there, but they're living without even the most basic services.

    But, as correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, the people on the ground are still facing attacks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Just like any 1-year-old, Omar Al-Dagheem loves his father's motorbike, even if he needs his older brothers' help. These days, he needs more help than ever. He needs his father Mohammed's help to carry him.

    Last month, Omar lost his left leg when his family home was hit by a government airstrike. A Syrian jet targeted their village. It killed Omar's mother, who was 7 months pregnant with a boy. Also killed that day, another woman, and seven students at a primary school.

    And just as White Helmet volunteers were rescuing the wounded, another airstrike. Today, Al-Dagheem is grateful his son is alive. But Al-Dagheem misses his wife and is worried about Omar's future.

  • Mohammed Al-Dagheem:

    I look at Omar and I see he is missing everything in life, the love of a mother, for him to go out and play with his brothers. His brothers will be playing, and he tries to get up so he can play with them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Omar is being cared for at Maaret al-Numan Central Hospital in Idlib province. He is just like so many victims in this war. But, last month, he was supposed to be safe. Omar and his family were living in Jarjnaz in Idlib province.

    In September, Turkey and Russia agreed to create a demilitarized buffer zone, remove heavy weaponry and rebel fighters, and halt military operations. But the agreement has loopholes, says the Middle East Institute's Charles Lister.

  • Charles Lister:

    That jihadist groups linked to al-Qaida are not part of that agreement, which in the regime's eyes, explains why they have continued some level of military action. So, in a way, it's really just a regime ploy to keep pressure on the area.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Keep pressure on the province that is the rebel's final stronghold. No one rebel group is in control, but the most dominant is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, known as HTS, a sub-branch of al-Qaida.

    The militants' presence provides the Syrian government an excuse to continue targeting. And that targeting looks like this, hollowed buildings, body bags, and thousands fleeing an onslaught the buffer zone was supposed to prevent. Idlib is home to three million people, many of whom are internally displaced.

    Hundreds of thousands live without basic services, in overcrowded camps or in the remnants of bombed-out buildings.

    Mariam Al-Dagheem works at a women's center. She fled the bombing in Jarjnaz, and says she's a long way from going back.

  • Mariam Al-Dagheem:

    As long as the regime forces remain at the front lines and the shelling continues, it's impossible to return, because the situation is not secure at all. Any time we think of coming back, the shelling and bombardment starts again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The only reason the bombing isn't worse is that Syrian ally Russia is reluctant to launch a full-on offensive. And the Syrian regime can't move forward without Russia's support.

  • Charles Lister:

    Retaking Idlib would be a huge military challenge. And most of the onus of responsibility for a successful campaign would fall on Russia. So, Russia's patience, I think, here is key. And at least for now, Russia's patience is translating into regime patience.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Turkey is also resisting a full-scale Idlib onslaught. Turkish troops monitor the buffer zone. And Turkey is hoping to prevent more Syrian refugees from joining the already three million refugees inside Turkey.

  • Charles Lister:

    A major escalation in Idlib is literally Turkey's worst-case scenario. And so Turkey is expending a huge amount of energy, a lot under the surface and behind the scenes, to convince the whole spread of armed groups just to sustain this deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so that means most of the countries operating in Syria want to see political progress. This month, the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Geneva with retiring U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the countries were determined to set up a new committee to rewrite Syria's Constitution. The U.S. has tried to pressure Russia and the Syrian regime by withholding reconstruction aid and blocking refugee repatriation, as top U.S. envoy James Jeffrey said earlier this month.

  • James Jeffrey:

    None of those things are happening, and they're not going to happen until the political process makes progress, as far as I can see. And I don't see a change in that, and I think that's dawning on at least the Russians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But there is still no political progress. And until there is, the residents of Idlib will likely continue to be targeted, despite the de-escalation zone.

  • Mohammed Al-Dagheem:

    For us, nothing has really changed. For us, there is no difference in the end. Life has not become better. Quite the opposite. Now tension has increased. We feel that there is literally no one left in Jarjnaz. The town is completely demolished.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Residents with no where else to flee have little optimism. We asked Mariam Al-Dagheem whether she had any hope for the future.

  • Mariam Al-Dagheem:

    No. As long as the situation continues like this, it's impossible to have hope.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Just before the airstrike, Omar's family took this video. He had just learned to walk.

    Today, Omar's best hope is to make it to Turkey to receive a prosthetic leg. His missing limb another sign the heaviest price paid in this war is paid by civilians.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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