Why are Syrian attacks targeting hospitals and schools?

Deadly attacks blasted hospitals and schools across Northern Syria, killing nearly 50 civilians, many of them children. Activists blamed Russian airstrikes, despite plans for a temporary cease-fire. The White House condemned the violence and the Turkish foreign minister called it "an obvious war crime." William Brangham talks with Anne Barnard of The New York Times.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We return now to Syria, and the series of attacks that killed dozens in the country's north.

    Late today, the Turkish foreign minister called the strike against a hospital, allegedly by Russian forces, — quote — "an obvious war crime," and he threatened serious consequences if the Russian air campaign doesn't stop.

    William Brangham takes the story from there.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Joining me now to discuss today's attacks in Northern Syria, and the state of the larger war there, is New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard.

    Anne, thanks for being here.

    So, we have seen these recent attacks against medical facilities and hospitals. Allegedly, these are by the Russians. What can you tell us? What's going on there?

  • ANNE BARNARD, The New York Times:

    Well, this has actually been something of a pattern, even by the Syrian government.

    There have been a pattern of attacks against hospitals and schools. And since the Russian airstrikes began, it has continued with the Russian airstrikes as well. It seems that there may be a strategy of trying to depopulate areas, just areas that are not likely to come back into the government fold. It seems to be preferable from their point of view to either drive those people away or make the areas difficult to live in.

    We saw this in the city of Homs, when the center of the city was occupied for a long time by insurgents. And, finally, the solution was to evacuate them, and still much of the city is not really inhabited.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Now, amidst all of this bombing, we have been seeing Kurdish forces coming in and sort of coming in behind the bombing and retaking some of the space created there. Why is that important?

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    First of all, it shows the complicated battlefield in Northern Aleppo, where we're seeing that the enemy of my enemy is often also my enemy.

    This means there are groups which are backed by the Americans who are actually fighting each other, and Turkey, who is an American ally and a NATO member, is getting increasingly, vociferously angry at the Kurdish advances. The Turks consider the Kurds to be the biggest threat to them because of their history of struggles with their own Kurdish population.

    And so to see Kurdish militias taking over land from Turkish-backed insurgents is a new and very fast-moving development in this battle.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So the Kurds are sort of using this opportunistically, to try to take back what they think of as some of their ancestral homeland?

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    Well, the main Kurdish areas are separated by this area which is being fought over right now.

    So, this is not really a Kurdish area. The Kurds are to the west and to the east of it. So, the Kurdish aim seems to be to try to connect the two areas, although they would also have to take an even larger area which is now controlled by Islamic State.

    But they have been able to move surprisingly quickly, taking advantage of the Russian strikes, which has prompted the Syrian, Arab and Turkmen rebels to say that they must be working with the Russians.

    The Russians have backed the Kurds politically, trying to get them a bigger seat at the table in peace negotiations. And, right now, you have a scenario where both the Russians and the Americans, nominally on opposite sides of this fight, are both backing Kurdish militias against ISIS to one degree and another.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I understand we are supposed to be having a cease-fire beginning very soon, and yet things seem to just be getting more and more violent as we get close to that deadline.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    Yes.

    To some extent, that is something to be expected. Ahead of any peace negotiations or cease-fire, parties on the ground try to maximize their advantage and their position. But, in the case, it seems like something more, the case where the balance of power is pretty lopsided.

    And it's as if the Russians and the Syrian government are trying to sprint to victory, at least in this particular theater of the battle. And why wouldn't they if they see an opportunity to do that?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, Anne Barnard of The New York Times, thank you so much.

  • ANNE BARNARD:

    Thank you.