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Airstrikes on rebel-held Syria create new crisis for a quarter million people

More than 270,000 Syrians have fled for their lives in the last few weeks. For them, walking for hours to a desolate corner of the desert and waiting for help that is not arriving is still safer than staying at home. Massive airstrikes by Russian jets and a trail of destruction left by Syrian and Iranian-backed troops have turned the once rebel-held Dara'a into a ghost town. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We turn now to Syria and its ongoing civil war.

    The uprising there was sparked in 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, and since then, it has been largely held by rebel forces. But now the regime of President Trump Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, has launched a military operation to retake it.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, that has led to the latest massive and forced displacement of civilians caught in the crossfire.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    In this war, those who flee bombs carry the world, and everything they own, on their shoulders.

    In the last few weeks, more than 270,000 Syrians have fled for their lives. They walk for hours to a desolate corner of the desert with no infrastructure, because it's safer than staying at home. One man who didn't give his name carried his son to safety.

  • MAN (through interpeter):

    We were surrounded. We're refugees. We're under attack. Where should we go? I swear, where should we go?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    They went to the closest safest place, the Jordanian border, guarded by Jordanian soldiers. And they sit, waiting for help that is not arriving.

  • DARIKHA ERKATAEVA:

    Women, children, elderly, all kinds of civilians that are stranded along the border, there are injures and even deaths that are taking place.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Darikha Erkataeva is the head of Doctors Without Border's Jordan and Syria mission. She has only been able to send in two trucks of supplies.

  • DARIKHA ERKATAEVA:

    There is no medical health care that is being provided. So, the people are trapped with no access to basic services or basic needs.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    This is what they have fled, massive airstrikes by Russian jets and a trail of destruction left by Syrian and Iranian-backed troops targeting one of the country's last two rebel-held territories.

    This is what consolidating government control looks like, a Syrian soldier firing artillery, a column of Syrian tanks that have made Daraa a ghost town. The markets are blown out and empty. What used to be an apartment complex is an abandoned shell.

    This was once the Al-Musayfra Hospital. A Russian bomb exploded in the main lobby. The stretchers are cut in half. And the operating tables are pockmarked and deserted.

    Daraa is where the uprising began in early 2011. Since then, Syria has gone from crisis, to calamity, to catastrophe, 12 million people displaced, more than half the country, and more than 400,000 dead.

    But what's different now, it's in a particularly sensitive location. Those fleeing their homes have ended up in the corner of three countries, Syria, Jordan, and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The exodus has put pressure on Israel and Jordan, and threatened to entangle both countries.

    Jordan has sent aid across the border into Syria. But it's already taken in 1.3 million refugees who live in the region's largest camp, and won't accept any more, said Jordanian government spokesman Jumana Ghunaimat.

  • JUMANA GHUNAIMAT (through interpreter):

    We feel the pain of our Syrian brothers, but we have Jordanian priorities, its security and safety in the first place. Everybody knows the reality of the extremist organizations inside Syria. And we are not able, honestly, to take that risk and allow the refugees in.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Near the Israeli border, displaced Syrians set up a tent city. Israel's moved tanks toward the border, and issued a warning to Syrian and Iranian-backed troops not to get too close, as delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (through interpreter):

    We have a separation of forces with Syria since 1974. This is a fundamental agreement. We will follow it meticulously. And it's incumbent on all others to do the same.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The U.S. has 2,000 troops in Syria, but they are far from the location of this crisis. And the U.S. explicitly told the rebels not to expect any help, which means the outcome of this fight is preordained. The rebels are outgunned. And there is nothing stopping the Syrian and Russian assault.

    In Daraa town, rescue workers managed to pull out a girl alive from the rubble. But many who stayed in Daraa paid with their lives. Rescue workers had to dig out bodies and walk them through destroyed streets.

    And for those who fled, the horror of this war is never-ending.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin.

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