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The war in Syria is breaking dangerous new ground. Syrian and Russian airstrikes have pummeled rebel-held areas, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble. Meanwhile, American commanders vow to hold their ground on behalf of Kurdish allies, under threat of attack by Turkey. Nick Schifrin talks to journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
But first to Syria.
The war there will soon mark its seventh bloody anniversary.
And, as Nick Schifrin reports, a conflict known for its complexity and brutality is breaking ghastly, dangerous new ground.
Even after seven years, the fog of the Syrian war is as thick as ever.
There is fighting in Syria on at least three fronts, and the Syrian people remain the primary target. For a fourth straight day, Syrian and Russian jets and artillery pummeled the last significant rebel holdouts.
The targets are in Idlib province and the Damascus suburb eastern Ghouta, where, in the last week, rescue workers and activists reported nearly 200 deaths. The relentless bombardment reduced entire neighborhoods, and their hospitals and their schools, to rubble.
Even in this war, the U.N. calls these bombings extreme. And it says it's investigating whether some of the bombs have been filled with chlorine. Among the victims of the violence, 400,000 residents who remain trapped. Many need medical attention and food, and the U.N. says the Syrian regime is preventing aid deliveries.
Meanwhile, on the U.S.' front line in Northern Syria, American commanders vow to hold their ground on behalf of Kurdish and Arab allies. Manbij is the most important forward operating base for U.S. and local troops who cleared Northern Syria of ISIS.
Yesterday, top U.S. commanders made a rare visit to inspect front lines. They say local Kurdish and Arab forces need to remain here to stabilize the area and prevent an ISIS return.
Major General Jamie Jarrard is the special operations commander in Iraq and Syria.
Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard:
We need to stay here until that political environment is stable and our security here, our presence here provides that level of stabilization and brings security.
But that presence is destabilizing the U.S. relationship with Turkey. Turkey sees Kurdish Syrian fighters as threat, and attacked them in the Northwest region of Afrin. Turkey's now threatening to target Kurds, and Americans, in Manbij.
This week, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, demanded the U.S. withdraw.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogant (through interpreter):
Go ahead and leave. You are telling us not to come to Manbij? We will come to Manbij to deliver the land to its true owners.
And a third front in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. Yesterday, the U.S. says it launched air and artillery strikes against the Syrian regime to defend U.S. allies. It was the largest direct U.S. strike on Syria since last April, when the U.S. launched cruise missiles in response to a Syrian regime chemical weapons attack.
But, today, the Pentagon insisted it wasn't trying to open up another front.
We are not looking for a conflict with the regime. Any action that takes away from our ongoing operations to defeat ISIS is a distraction.
And for more on this moment in the many-sided Syria war, I'm joined by journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She's just returned from Kurdish-controlled Northern Syria, and traveled there last summer on assignment for the NewsHour.
And Hassan Hassan, he's a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank here in Washington. He also co-authored the book, "ISIS- Inside the Army of Terror."
Thank you very much to you both.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, let me start with you.
You just returned from Northern Syria. You saw the Kurds consolidating some of their gains. How destructive perhaps could it be for Turkey to be talking about even invading Manbij?
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:
It's destructive and it's a distraction, depending on where you sit, right?
So, it's destructive for the Kurdish perspective, in that here they have this democratic project they're working on. And now they are really sending civilians and obviously those in uniform to the front to defend Afrin.
On the distraction side, right, for the U.S.-backed forces who are fighting in Deir el-Zour, certainly the fight in Afrin is very much taking resources and people away from the fight against ISIS.
So, let's stay in Northern Syria, Hassan Hassan. How serious is Turkey about this?
Turkey is quite serious about this.
They have demonstrated that they are very serious since 2016, when they shifted their priorities in Syria from removing Bashar al-Assad to working very closely with Russia and Iran to basically redraw the political and military map in the North.
And what they did in Afrin is another demonstration that they are very serious. Nobody expected Turkey to go this far. They had — I think the Americans expected that Turkey was thinking of going to Afrin, but they didn't think that they had the courage or the kind of really appetite to go and fight in Afrin.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, for a while, we had mutual enemies. Right? Everyone was kind of on the same page fighting ISIS. It doesn't seem like that is the case. Has that exacerbated some of the problems, especially in Northern Syria?
Very much so.
The fight against ISIS was a unifying force, right, where all sides could kind of freeze their fights with one another and focus on the ISIS fight. That is over.
I mean, I talked to Syrians who said, listen, if you think that this war is ending, it's actually just now ramping up to its next phase, where parties who were warring before the ISIS fight will now go back to fighting one another, because it's really now about the endgame and who has what territory going into whatever the end of this war looks like.
Hassan Hassan, just ramping up, that's horrifying to think about that.
We have got this other strike in Deir el-Zour, the U.S. saying that it was acting in self-defense. So, is this a case where the regime and some of its allies are being more aggressive, testing the U.S., or is it the U.S. being more aggressive, or something in between?
No, I think the Syrian regime has been considering more of these provocations.
They have done it before. The United States struck back. They downed a Syrian plane, I think, a year ago. And after that, the deconfliction zones agreed between the Russians and Americans held for a while. And now we see this incident in Deir el-Zour against the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other side of the river.
So, I think it's not a secret that the Syrian regime doesn't like the Americans being in Syria. And this is just a message that, we're still there, we're still thinking of you leaving at some point.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, there are so many attacks that we talk about in Syria. And yet the ones we also are talking about now, separately in Idlib, in Eastern Ghouta, some of the last holdouts for the rebels, are just even worse than some of the ones we have seen in the past, right?
Syria is the war that's extinguished the power of adjectives to describe its hell.
And when you read what is happening right now, right, more than a million Syrians fled to Idlib from other parts of Syria that were racked by war. People really feel like the war is following them and taking away their children, their parents, their loved ones with its horrors.
And in Eastern Ghouta, right, there are people who say, this is the worst fighting we have seen, in the last couple days, in the past seven years.
I mean, that's horrifying.
Hassan Hassan, what is the Assad regime after? We have obviously seen a lot of violence in Syria over the years. These are some of the last rebel holdouts. What's their aim?
So, I mean, the clear aim of Bashar al-Assad, has made it clear that they want to capture all of Syria.
Now, they also recognize that they cannot do that. They don't have the resources. They don't have the legitimacy in some areas to do that, but every now and then, they go after a certain area to kind of unroot and uproot any alternatives that are being built up in some of these areas.
So, they are after all these areas. Now, they also — they know their limits, and they have to demonstrate their willingness to go back to these areas by a relentless bombing campaign every now and then.
And Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, relentless bombing campaigns. Are you optimistic at all about the future of Syria after your last few trips there?
The one thing that gives you optimism is that people are pushing forward regardless.
There was a woman we interviewed last summer who had been — left Raqqa eight-and-a-half months pregnant. And she fled to an IDP camp right outside Raqqa, gave birth there to a baby that was less than two kilos.
And we didn't know what had happened to her. And I actually went and found her this last trip, and she's doing so well, which is such an exception in the stories of this war that we hear. She's working for an NGO. She's supporting her family. She has a very clean, a very warm home for her children that is in an IDP camp, but also feels very cozy when you're there.
So she's really pushing forward, putting her kids in school. And I think that resilience, that strength and that courage is what gives you some hope about the real awful tragedy of this war.
Hassan Hassan, quickly, resilience, hope, but you also see more violence in the near future?
I think, just two months ago, people thought that Syria was headed towards more civility, with different countries working together. We had the momentum against ISIS towards the end of last year. You have Turkey, Russia, and Iran working together.
But now suddenly everything is unraveling in different parts of Syria. And that tells you how fragile these gains are.
Hassan Hassan, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, thank you both.
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