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Intensified offensive in Idlib province puts Syrian civilians on the run

In Syria, forces loyal to the Assad regime -- and backed by Russian air power -- are advancing in the province of Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold. As the Syrian army and its allies try to secure a key highway to Aleppo, thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire. Judy Woodruff reports and talks to Smith College’s Steven Heydemann and the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Syria, forces loyal to the Assad regime and backed by Russian airpower are advancing in the northwestern province of Idlib. It's the last remaining stronghold for the rebels who've been fighting Assad for the past eight years.

    The Syrian army and its allies are focused on trying to take over a key highway leading to the city of Aleppo. Thousands of Syrian civilians are caught in the crossfire.

    In Northwestern Syria's Idlib province, the latest target was this schoolhouse. Families were left horrified today after airstrikes hit the building. Human rights activists said the shelling left multiple civilians dead, including five children.

  • Abu Mohammed (through translator):

    The airplane was hovering around. Then all we saw was a missile coming down toward us. It fell on a whole family of around 10 people. All of them were killed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was the latest carnage in the Assad regime's intensified offensive against Syria's last rebel-held stronghold.

    Since last week, government forces, with Russian air support, have reclaimed more than 40 villages and hamlets in the northwestern territory. The offensive has largely targeted civilian areas, leaving many towns crumbled into dust.

    The United Nations estimates at least 80,000 people, many of them already forced out of other parts of Syria, have fled toward the border with Turkey. The exodus has left thousands of women and children sleeping in tents.

  • Woman:

    Thirteen votes in favor, two votes against.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Despite the growing humanitarian crisis, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution last week to extend cross-border aid into Syria for another year.

    The Russians have backed Damascus through eight years of civil war. And in Moscow yesterday, the Russian foreign minister, with his Syrian counterpart, defended the veto.

  • Sergei Lavrov (through translator):

    We are convinced that safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria is the logical solution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, a Turkish official announced, after talks with Moscow, that Russia will work to stop the attacks in Idlib. But there were no details on any concrete commitments.

    For more, I'm joined now by Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis. Steven Heydemann is the chair of the Middle East studies program at Smith College and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Joshua Landis is professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and the editor of the Web site SyriaComment.com.

    Welcome to you both.

    Steven Heydemann, let me start with you.

    Remind us in brief, who is fighting whom here and what are they fighting over?

  • Steven Heydemann:

    This is the Assad regime with support from its key patrons, in particular Russia, who have launched another phase in an ongoing offensive to try to reassert their control over the last part of Syria that is controlled by opposition forces.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Joshua Landis, what would you add to that?

  • Joshua Landis:

    One of the problems with Idlib is, it's the largest collection of al-Qaida-affiliated fighters in — left in the world.

    And there are about 30,000 militants. This is why the international community is not coming to the defense of these rebels, because they don't — they're torn. We saw that America just destroyed caliph Baghdadi, who was in Idlib province. Many ISIS members have taken refuge there.

    And so I think the international community, although they see the terrible humanitarian disaster that is unfolding here as these militants are attacked and Syria takes back this land, they're torn about what to do, because they don't want an enclave going on forever, in which these militant jihadists can plan attacks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you saying that the international community isn't coming to the defense of these rebels.

    And yet, Steven Heydemann, the humanitarian catastrophe is clear. To be hitting a school, hitting families, hitting children, once again, it's the civilians who are the targets.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    Correct.

    There may be some overlap of interests in terms of the focus on removing terrorist groups and fighters from Idlib. But the way the regime is conducting this conflict is generating extraordinary pushback from the international community, even if the means to bring about a change in the conduct of the operations are very limited.

    We have seen expressions of concern from the U.N. secretary-general. We know that Secretary of State Pompeo has criticized what the regime is doing. So, whatever the overlap of interests might be, the focus on civilian targets, on schools, on hospitals, the deaths of civilians, closing roads to prevent the evacuation of civilians from areas that are coming under attack, these are aspects of the way the regime and Russia are conducting this offensive that are really seen as unacceptable.

    They are war crimes. They are crimes against humanity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, Joshua Landis, the Syrians and the Russians defend this. The Russians, along with the Chinese, vetoed this resolution at the U.N.

  • Joshua Landis:

    They did.

    Syria descended into, I guess what we would call total war a long time ago. And to put that in some perspective, it's a little bit like Sherman's march through the South, where he burnt the wheat crops. He tried to destroy the morale of the enemy.

    And it's a little bit like bombing Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And, unfortunately, these things work. And that's — that's the terrible — I guess the terrible commentary on humankind, is that, in a war like this, horrible things are happening, and the people are getting ground down under the feet of these opposing troops.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have been hearing about this war in Syria, of course, since the civil war there began, Steven Heydemann, what, eight years ago. It's still going on.

    And the two of you were telling us this battle in Idlib is not the last one. You're expecting more fighting to come northeastern Syria, near the Turkey border.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    Not just Northeastern Syria, but let's keep in mind that the major urban center in Idlib province, Idlib City, where the population is now between 1.5 million and two million people, has so far escaped the kind of direct attack that we're seeing now on cities a little bit further to the east and south.

    But it will happen. It will come. And this is an enormous source of pressure, not just for humanitarian reasons, but because Turkey has closed the border. People who are fleeing fighting have nowhere to go.

    And what I understand is that Turkey and Russia have now negotiated something of an understanding that cities immediately in the path of this offensive may actually be turned over to the regime, to fall under joint Russian-Turkish patrols, precisely to try to mitigate the pressure on Turkey to accept new waves of refugees.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the fighting continues, thousands of internally displaced refugees, Steven — Landis.

    But the bottom line is that the Assad regime is in control, is it not, after eight years of fighting?

  • Joshua Landis:

    Yes.

    President Trump has said that there's nothing but sand and death in Syria and that they can fight over it. Unfortunately, this has been the attitude. Europe is paying Turkey, helping Turkey subsidize the building of a wall to contain all these civilians inside Syria, because Turkey can't accept any more refugees, after 3.5 million.

    And this is really the sad commentary, is that the world is turning away from Syria today. It's not on the headlines. The United States has withdrawn. And we're preoccupied with impeachment, the elections and other things. And the Syrians are going to pay a high price for this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Steven Heydemann, it's — it looks as if — I mean, that is one of the reasons we wanted to focus on it tonight, because it hasn't been getting attention.

    But the world looks on, and — but seems help — we're helpless to do anything, the rest of the world.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    Right. Right.

    And the opportunities to engage on a humanitarian level have been narrowed by the Russian and Chinese veto in the U.N. that your story highlighted.

    And so we face a significant dilemma. If Turkey will not permit refugees to enter the country, if there is nowhere for them to go, and the numbers of displaced increased during the winter, with enormous flooding, terrible weather all over Northern Syria, the scale of the catastrophe that could be emerging is quite extraordinary.

    And I would hope governments in the West would respond, despite the vote in the U.N., even if it means defying the vote in the U.N., to prevent what would otherwise be a real catastrophe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at this moment, just finally, quickly, Joshua Landis, President Assad of Syria comes out of this, what, feeling vindicated?

  • Joshua Landis:

    Well, he wants to reconquer his country.

    And both the United States, Turkey and Russia all are saying that Syrian sovereignty should remain and the territory should remain integral.

    So, on international law, he has a superior position, and nobody can quibble with that, really. This is the — legally, the international community still recognizes him as the president of Syria and recognizes these other insurgent groups and rebel groups as, you know, ultimately, illegitimate.

    And this is — the U.N. never passed a vote, as they did in Syria — in Libya, to make the rebels the legitimate government of Syria. And that's — that is the shortcoming that these rebels are facing today.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    But the issue isn't whether there's any significant challenge to Assad's sovereignty at this point. It's how he conducts the operation to reimpose his control over this one remaining holdout.

    And he's chosen the most brutal methods possible. He's used tactics that do constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. And there are alternatives that are available to him, if he had wanted to pursue reassertion of his control, without imposing such an extraordinary price on civilians in that part of Syria.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's a subject that we believe is important to continue to look at.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Steven Heydemann, thank you for joining us.

    Joshua Landis, thank you.

  • Steven Heydemann:

    Thanks for having us.

  • Joshua Landis:

    Pleasure. Thank you.

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