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Syria sets its sights on the last rebel holdout

The war inside Syria has been raging for seven years, with half a million dead, millions displaced and the complicated battlefield dramatically shifted. Now Bashar al-Assad’s army is preparing for what could be the war’s final major battle. Nick Schifrin talks with Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iraqi jets today launched an air strike against ISIS fighters inside Syria, where the U.S. is on the ground with partner forces trying to finish off the Islamic State.

    The wider war inside Syria has been raging for seven years. But Bashar al Assad's army is preparing for what could be the war's final major battle.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The horror of Syria's war has felt endless. Half a million dead. Millions displaced.

    But the battlefield has shifted dramatically. Take a look at this map. September 30th, 2015, the day Russia intervened. The Syrian government, in red, controlled pockets across the west. ISIS controlled a spider web in the center and east.

    And this is today. The Syrian government, in red, has made dramatic progress. ISIS, in black, reduced to a small area. Anti-government rebels, in green, only have a few pockets. The most important is Idlib. That is the likely last, major battle of the Syrian war.

    The yellow is Kurdish controlled.

    And take a look at these photos from the Kurdish area. A Syrian mother named Batool with her baby, and Batool with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who just returned from the Kurdish-controlled areas, and joins us now. She is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    And also joining me is Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, and the author, most recently, of "From Chaos to Cooperation: Toward Regional Order in the Middle East".

    Thank you to you both.

    Paul Salem, let me turn to you. Why is Idlib so important?

  • Paul Salem:

    Well, as you said, Idlib is the last of the bastions that is still partly with the opposition and still partly with terrorists group. Idlib is the only major remaining place where there are several — you know, tens of thousands of opposition fighters. Some are terrorist groups as well as Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebel groups.

    Right now, the city and the province of Idlib, which holds anywhere from 2.5 million to 3.5 million civilians is the last remaining sort of location. The Assad regime and the Russians and the Iranians want to resolve that last hold-out in Idlib one way or the other soon, because that would basically conclude much of the Syrian war. The risk is that the fighting, if it were to come down to a military fight, would be even more horrific than we've seen so far and might push hundreds of thousands of refugees back on the march either through Turkey or through other places.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, take us to the Kurdish area. Take us to the northeast where you've seen a lot of progress.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Absolutely. And I know we talk about it as a Kurdish area, but the closer you get to Raqqa, the more you see really see local Arab forces. And I think the story of Batool, the mother you showed, embraces and sort of embodies both the horror and the hope of this conflict.

    The horror in that here is a mom who walked out of Raqqa City when we met her one year ago, eight and a half months pregnant, gave birth to a baby that was two kilos. So, definitely teeny tiny —

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's four and a half pounds.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Four and a half pounds, right, and had, you know, a very strong chance of dying. And, in fact, her mother thought she was going to die.

    And when we met her, she was talking about how she did not want to give birth to a baby in ISIS-controlled territory, and it is why she gave her whole life savings to a smuggler who made her, put her family in a convoy with five other cars. The fifth car exploded as it drove over an ISIS emplaced landmine.

    And basically what we see today is this mother one year later who has, you know, a baby that is really healthy and chunky and happy. All her kids are in school. And she talked to us one year later from when we first met her about how she really has hope for the future. And that what she believes is possible now is to have a basic level of security for Syrians to be able to rebuild their future and what she asks for was the international community to remain present there in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You also saw the opening of a woman's council in Raqqa. And I think we've got video of that, as well. Is there a real sense that what was the headquarters of ISIS at one point has really turned a corner for good?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    It is fascinating, Nick, right? So, on streets where women were bought and sold, we went to this event this past week, where you saw dancing and men and women and a lot of women I interviewed from Raqqa, who talked about how they had never been outside the home, working or volunteering, prior to ISIS. And what you really see, what I saw this trip, and in the three other trips I've made in the past year, is Arab women who are really saying, listen, they pushed us too far. And our families now support us to be part of local councils, to be part of local security.

    One woman I met was a shopkeeper who just opened a sort of pajama shop in Raqqa, and she said, you know, business has been slow at the outset. It's starting to pick up. So I almost packed up my bags and went home, but my father told me that he really believes that I should keep at this and be part of rebuilding the economy and helping our family.

    And you hear that story over and over again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paul Salem, I wonder if, as we're about to see perhaps the last major battle of the war, have the underlying reasons for why you've been seeing so much work the last seven years been changed?

  • Paul Salem:

    What's particularly tragic about the Syria situation is that the causes of the terrible government repression, you know, torture and all of that, an economy that was very unequal in how it distributed wealth, all of that has gotten much worse, and yet, Syria has not gotten closer, maybe it's gotten farther from a political settlement.

    So whereas obviously getting rid of ISIS is the blessing of untold proportions, but the road ahead for Syria for many years is going to be very difficult.

    First of all, the war itself, you know, has ended in some areas, but much of the discontent, many of the armed small groups are still there. It might come back in different forms here or there. The president, the government does not have legitimacy. There are no credible elections coming forward. There's no negotiation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, very quickly in the time we have left, what did you hear when you were just in the northeast? Did you hear a desire to maintain from the U.S. perspective presence in that area?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Absolutely. I think what you hear from everybody is two things. One is first a question. So, can you tell us what the Americans are going to do? The second thing is people stating a desire, and this is moms and dads, shopkeepers along with U.S. forces actually, saying, you know, look, we really do think the international presence is helping to really keep a level of stability and security that allows schools to open, people to go back out onto the street, allows stores to begin to come back to life.

    And I think we have spent so much time in Washington talking about what the United States is not capable of, and here in northeast Syria, you actually have an example of what U.S. leadership with a partner force that is, you know, able to both take the lamp and also to hold it with local forces, is able to do for moms and dads. I don't think that we talk enough about what is actually happening there on the ground, which is a story of forward-moving progress amid destruction and amid the devastation of war and of ISIS.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Paul Salem, thank you very much.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Thank you.

  • Paul Salem:

    Thank you Nick.

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