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Idlib’s ‘relentless’ onslaught vs. northeastern Syria’s ‘fragile stability’

In northwest Syria, Idlib province -- the final stronghold of opponents of the Assad regime -- is under relentless attack, and a source of tension between Syria and Turkey. Land liberated by the U.S. and its Kurdish allies in northeast Syria faces a very different situation. Nick Schifrin talks to Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations and Hassan Hassan of the Center for Global Policy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: In Syria, there is a tale of two territories.

    The final stronghold of those opposed to the Assad regime is the target of relentless attacks and the source of constant tension between Syria and neighboring Turkey. And then there is the area liberated by the U.S. and its allies.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, each area faces unique and immense challenges.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    With the war in Syria now grinding into the ninth year, Bashar al-Assad has all but won the war and kept power with the help of Iran and Russia and much of the country.

    But the killing and suffering continues, especially in Northwest Syria in Idlib province. Millions of civilians and tens of thousands of militants are under constant bombardment. Meanwhile, in Northeast Syria, the Syrian Kurds, with U.S. and European backing, destroyed ISIS' stronghold nearly three months ago. The Kurds control a vast area, but many of its major cities are destroyed, and they live with the threat of a promised U.S. withdrawal.

    To update us on both regions, we welcome two people with deep experience covering the war. Hassan Hassan was born and grew up in Eastern Syria. He is now a director at the Center For Global Policy, a foreign policy think tank. And journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, she's an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and just returned from her sixth trip to Northeast Syria, and is working on a new book about the Kurds.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you very much.

    Hassan Hassan, let's start with you in Idlib. We have covered this story before.

    How bad is the onslaught by the Syrian regime and the Russian air force against this last location where rebels are living?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    This is as bad as it gets.

    We were anticipating that the regime and the Russians will attack Idlib. We have been anticipating this for about a year now. So the offensive has been relentless. The Russians have been bombarding the areas nonstop for about six weeks now, but with very little military progress on the ground.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So what is their hope? Are they trying to bomb these people into submission? These people don't have very many places to go, other than across the border in Turkey. Or is it more of a limited goal?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    The campaign has been very limited. There are signs that the Russians have wanted it to be geographically limited.

    Iran has not been involved in the fight on the ground. And this is one of the major reasons why Russia has not managed to make any progress, meaningful progress, against the Syrian rebels in Idlib and in Northern Hama. These are the two areas where the offensive has focused.

    It was probably they managed to take 1 percent, and they lost around 1 percent as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    These horrific scenes that we're seeing in Idlib are not the same as we see in Northern Syria and Northeast Syria.

    Raqqa was ISIS' stronghold, a place where there were executions in the middle of the square. The SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly Kurds, with U.S. help, have taken over that city.

    Is it a real city today? Does it have real problems?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    It is. It's a real city with real problems led by a nonstate actor with real state issues, right?

    And so what you see now is a real fragile stability. One shopkeeper we visited, I was really worried her business was going to be closed, after it was very slow and December. And we walked in this time, and not only does she have a great business that's going and a sewing machine that's up, but she had a 14-year-old girl from her family who's helping her and clerking also.

    And so you see this real fragile stability taking hold amid enormous challenge, and a real threat of ISIS reemergence. So what they're looking for is any opening that they possibly can use.

    And it's interesting. One mother we met said, what we really love is that women are in all kinds of new roles all around Raqqa. What we're really worried about is the city falling back into chaos.

    And that's what you hear a lot.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the big challenges also in that part of the country is what to do with the people who were either held by ISIS or were members of ISIS, especially the so-called ISIS wives.

    These are women who traveled with their husbands to join ISIS. How do they feel about ISIS today? And how are they raising their children?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    So it depends on who you talk to.

    The women that we spoke with — and I think that you should call them both ISIS wives and followers, right, because they were very much adherents to what was happening.

    And so you talk to them, and you hear this mix of real disappointment and disillusionment with Baghdadi, who is the head of the Islamic State, because they are deeply bitter about the fact that children of these women who were part of ISIS died of starvation in Baghouz, in the last ISIS holdout, while leadership had access, as one mother told me, to potato chips and juice and Pepsi, while our children died in our arms.

    And you really do hear that. Now, at the same time, you have this united nations of ISIS that is in this whole camp with people from Seychelles and Germany and Amsterdam and all kinds of countries, right?

    And you walk in and you hear a real rainbow of languages being spoken as people talk about it. And you see how far-reaching this project was. And you wonder. There is this camp in Hol was — had 9,000 people in a school running before Baghouz. It was prepared for 30,000 to 40,000. It now has 73,000 people, at least 60 percent of them children.

    And they're trying to figure out what to do with this, including all of the foreigners, who absolutely no one wants to take back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Because the Kurds don't have the capacity really to do much with them.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    But just think. Until a few months ago, right, i mean, they were fighting the people. And now we have asked them to please not only house them, feed them, shelter them, make sure that viruses don't spread, that the health care is taken care of, but also, help us hold people that their own home countries don't want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's quickly look toward the future.

    Hassan Hassan, what do you see in Idlib? Do you think this onslaught will continue? And are we going to see it spread past Idlib?

  • Hassan Hassan:

    Well, I think both Russia and the regime will eventually want to take all of Idlib, because this is the last stronghold held by the Syrian rebel forces.

    In my opinion, the preference by the Syrian regime is to demolish the hauler. The reason why that is, is because they know that, even after they expel the Syrian rebel forces from these areas, that will be — that will turn into an endless underground campaign, insurgency by these forces. So they don't want to take chances, essentially, of having some remnants of the rebels in that very critical area.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, what do you see, quickly, in the north, North and Northeastern Syria, these threats to stability?

    Do the Kurds have the capacity to prevent instability? And is the U.S. focused enough on it?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    So, the U.S. is the Oz-like presence that you don't see, but everybody knows. And, so far, they have been able to keep out the regime, Iran — Turkey.

    And they have been able to keep ISIS more or less at bay with a partner force that is doing its job every single day. So the challenge is, what comes next? And that has always been the question.

    You hear — talk to SDF leadership, to folks who are part of this partner force, and they are focused on trying to work with the Americans to get to a deal with Turkey. And they're very quick to talk to you about it. Whether that deal can be achieved is a whole other question.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon with Council on Foreign Relations, Hassan Hassan, Center For Global Policy, thanks to you both.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Thank you.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    Thank you.

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