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Ceasefire talks fail as airstrikes target last rebel-held region in Syria

Syrian government and Russian forces launched airstrikes on Idlib province, where approximately 3 million people live in Syria's last rebel-held territory, on Saturday. More than 60 air raids have taken place in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Sarah El Deeb of the Associated Press joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Beirut for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

    Russian and Syrian government forces launched airstrikes today on the last rebel-held territory in Syria, the Idlib province. More than three million people are in the region, including fighters from groups opposed to the government. Video from a pro-opposition news agency shows smoke from what it said were bombings in multiple villages. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 60 air raids in southern Idlib and the first responder group known as the White Helmets reported four civilian deaths in the village of Abdeen. Yesterday, the leaders of Russia Syria and Turkey failed to come up with a plan to end the fighting immediately. Joining us now via Skype from Beirut is Associated Press correspondent Sarah El Deeb.

    Sarah, for those people who might not have been paying attention over the past few days or weeks, who are fighting over Idlib and what's at stake here?

  • SARAH EL DEEB:

    Everyone is fighting over Idlib, to put it simply. I mean, everyone that is involved in the Syrian war find themselves on the center stage in the Idlib battle. The government is eager to retake Idlib, it is one of the last spots that is out of its control. Turkey that is on the border with it, is worried over an offensive in idlib and is keen on seeing one happen. And it also supports some of the opposition fighters in and around Idlib. Russia, which is a supporter of the government. Iran, which is also a government supporter which wants to sort it out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So who's actually in there? I mean, we have, you have people who are against the Islamic State, you have people who are against the Syrian rebels, you have people who are against people who are, you know, threatening the Turks. So what's the population that's really being targeted here?

  • SARAH EL DEEB:

    There's over 3 million people in Idlib. And I think the way you put it is a little bit in the bigger picture but what's actually in idlib, majority of people who are against the government of Syria and they've been displaced mostly from other parts of the country. They've moved from Aleppo, they moved from Homs, they moved from Damascus near the capital because they don't want to live under government control. There are people also who are the most radical fighters they are related to Al-Qaida. They have taken over the province or large parts of the province over the last couple of years. And so you have an estimate of 10,000 plus of hardcore radical Islamist fighters who are coincidentally are actually anti-Islamic State. They are cadre-related non-Islamic State.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What is stalling the diplomatic approach to this? Why isn't this being solved at a table at the U.N. or in Geneva?

  • SARAH EL DEEB:

    I mean if you remember the description I just gave, it's a very complex area. And I think part of the problem is it's also the last holding ground for the opposition in Syria. This is the last chapter if you may of Syria. And I think with it comes to all the complications when the conflict is not resolved in the last eight years. So you have Turkey that wants to ensure that the situation doesn't get out of hand. There's no run on its border from the three million people that are going to potentially be displaced by the fighting. There is Iran and Russia want to ensure that there is some kind of agreement that Turkey's presence in Syria because Turkey already has some troops in Syria. And then you have the U.S., which also has some presence in the eastern Syria, the other side of the country. What was elusive for the last eight years is now on the table in Idlib but with it a very possibly humanitarian tragedy also coming with it. I think we heard that U.S. officials yesterday describing it as 10-11 times bigger than Aleppo and so I think there's also that consideration.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally, does the United States have any leverage left here besides our military presence. What sort of message, whether Nikki Haley sends it or not, what sort of message actually carries weight when it comes to all of the different parties that you just described or are involved in this?

  • SARAH EL DEEB:

    It's interesting because I think the eyes are on what Washington will decide in Syria. I think what people are seen is that it has changed its mind, it has wavered, it has been hesitant on its policy in Syria for all those years I think in Idlib, precisely, the U.S. has no influence. It has very little power players, it doesn't support any groups anymore and it doesn't have any influence on what direction politics of it will go. It also has no military presence or even near close military presence. Despite all the differences in this agreement with Turkey that the U.S. had over the past month, there is one thing that they have in common now in Idlib. They both don't want to see bloodshed there. So I think that may be one thing the U.S. has there is that it has a difficult and easy ally.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Associated Press correspondent Sarah El Deeb joining us via Skype from Beirut thanks so much.

  • SARAH EL DEEB:

    Thank you.

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