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In besieged Idlib, young Syrians say Trump is the only person who can save them

In Syria’s Idlib province, residents fear the worst humanitarian crisis in eight years of war. A deal signed last year was supposed to make it a demilitarized buffer zone, but Syrian and Russian forces have unleashed an onslaught, catching millions in the crossfire. Nick Schifrin reports on how Idlib residents, U.S. interfaith leaders and lawmakers are pushing for President Trump to step in.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the United States called for a new cease-fire in the Northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the last refuge of rebels fighting the Syrian regime.

    Idlib is also filled with extremists and millions of civilians, and where the regime recently launched a final assault.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, humanitarian groups fear that the fighting could set off the worst crisis of the eight-year-old war.

  • And a warning:

    Some of the images in this report are disturbing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Idlib's valley of the shadow of the death, there is no walking to safety, only running and praying that, on this day, the bomb misses its target.

    But, for so many, they fear this is the end, the slow and brutal end of the last major rebel-held province, where streets that used to be markets are bombed into mangled messes and funeral pyres, where what looks like snow is actually a bomb's aftermath, and a baby's future seems as black as night.

    Idlib is in Syria's Northwest, controlled by rebels and extremists in green, the final refuge of Syrians opposed to their government, which is in red. It is a few hundred miles from U.S. and Kurdish-controlled areas in yellow.

    Nine months ago, with Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin looking on, Turkey and Russia signed a deal that was supposed to make Idlib a demilitarized buffer zone. But Turkey has failed to deliver on promises to eliminate radicals and open up highways.

    And so, for the last three weeks, Syrian forces have waged a campaign that is cornering their enemies. Syrian ground troops fire tanks, and have advanced into more than 10 villages formerly controlled by rebels. Death rains from the sky. As Russian jets provide top cover, Syrian helicopters drop barrel bombs.

    They seem to fall slowly, but they're full of explosives and shrapnel designed to maximize destruction. Syria says it's targeting terrorists. Idlib is a nest of extremists. The U.S. once called it the world's largest al-Qaida safe haven.

    But the U.N. also describes it as the world's largest refugee camp, home to millions of civilians. Just this month, nearly 200,000 have fled their homes. They know they have to leave, but they have nowhere to go.

  • Husam Al-Hussein:

    As a human, as a man living here with my family, of course we are living in difficult and harsh circumstances, with no way out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Husam Al-Hussein is an English teacher in Al Gharrafa, Idlib. He works here, a women's center. Through eight years of war, it has stayed open. But they say what they're facing today is more dire than it's been in years.

  • Husam Al-Hussein:

    The bombardments, compared with the last times, now in the last few weeks, it was very, very heavy, including with airstrikes, war planes, and bomb bombardments, and rockets.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At an affiliated orphanage called The Wisdom House, young Syrians say the only person who can save them is President Trump.

  • Child (through translator):

    We are pleading with Mr. Trump, please stop the criminals from bombing our villages and to protect the Syrian people, the defenseless civilians.

  • Child (through translator):

    We are pleading with Mr. Trump to stop the massacres in our village and protect the civilians, children, women and elderly and to stop the spilling of blood.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The orphanage and women's center are funded by Americans in Arkansas, including from Conway's St. Peter's Episcopal Church, led by the Reverend Greg Warren. This week, he and dozens of interfaith leaders sent a letter to President Trump, also appealing to save Idlib and stop the Russians and Syrians.

  • Rev. Greg Warren:

    This is a never again moment for us. We're asking him to draw a red line with those forces, those countering forces to not let this happen, and to stop what could potentially be one of the worst humanitarian crisis that we have seen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The new appeal also appeared in a congressional letter asking President Trump to demonstrate American leadership in Syria. It was signed by 400 senators and congresspeople, including top House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrat Eliot Engel.

    Rep. Eliot Engel, (D)-N.Y.: We need a serious policy that pushes for a stop to the violence and the start to a political resolution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the past, President Trump has taken credit for preventing an Idlib onslaught.

  • Donald Trump:

    But if you look at Idlib province in Syria, I stopped the slaughter of perhaps three million people. Nobody talk about that. They don't talk about that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today in the House, the State Department's top Syria official called out Syrian and Russian actions in Idlib, including a possible chemical attack.

  • James Jeffrey:

    We are mobilizing the international community. We are working closely with them, and they are working closely with us to put pressure on Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And James Jeffrey defended the administration's strategy, saying the Idlib fighting was at least contained.

  • James Jeffrey:

    I will say, in defense of what we're doing, that at one point several years ago, in fact, pretty close to the present, you had Idlibs happening all over Syria. Right now, we have it happening in less than 74 square kilometers. That is, unfortunately by the miserable standards of this conflict, progress, sir.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that's only true because all the other rebel strongholds have been defeated. And unless the attacks stop, the people of Idlib are facing more days like today.

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

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