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Violence In Syria Escalates


Damascus, the capital of civil war-torn Syria, has a city center that's massively secured. Damascus also has suburbs where rebel fighting and government bombs have destroyed one neighborhood after another for years. And now a Damascus suburb called Eastern Ghouta is the scene of a massive bombardment by government forces and their allies, which NPR's Ruth Sherlock is covering. And, Ruth, what are you hearing?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi there. Well, there's been violence in this area this whole month, but it's really escalated in the last 24 hours. Various different monitoring groups are putting the death toll at around a hundred. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, this consortium of aid groups there, says that 97 people have been killed since just Monday. And there's just terrible reports of children being found among the rubble. These airstrikes are hitting civilian buildings. We spoke to a little girl, Noor (ph), she's 12 years old. We found her through activists, and she was with her mother. She says she's in Ghouta, and she told us about how she feels there.

NOOR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So here she's saying, "I'm so, so scared. We're hiding under the stairwell to escape from the bombs. There's no basement. I'm asking the world to put an end to this. We're really suffering." And then she starts to cry.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on who is doing the bombing here. This is a rebel-held area, right? Or, a suspected rebel-held area? And who's got an air force? The Syrian government has an air force. Don't Russian warplanes also operate over Syria?

SHERLOCK: That's absolutely right. So this area is one of the last main rebel-held parts of Syria, and it's a real threat to the Syrian government. It's right near the center of Damascus. They have tried to push out closer towards Damascus in the past, and they have - I should say, there are shelling attacks from this area from rebels hitting central Damascus. But the issue here is the disproportion. There are airstrikes, Syrian government airstrikes, we believe, also Russian airstrikes hitting this area. And there's also pro-government forces attacking this area now trying to - they say that they're trying to lay the groundwork to then launch an assault to try to take this area back once and for all. There's a guy, General Suheil al-Hassan, who's the leader of the government's Tiger Force - one of these militias fighting for the government - and he says, I promise to give them a lesson in fighting and fire, referring to the rebels in that area.

INSKEEP: I guess this is a good reminder that even as U.S.-backed groups have been taking out ISIS or pushing back ISIS in other parts of the country, Syria's government and the leader, Bashar al-Assad, along with Russia, has continued to destroy or push back against rebel groups that are challenging them.

SHERLOCK: Yeah. Absolutely. And the narrative of the war has really changed in the last few years. The Syrian government now very much has the upper hand and is taking territory back in several different places. We were also looking at Afrin. It's a town in the North of Syria, and it's controlled by Kurdish groups. The YPG, which is a group supported by the U.S., has controlled this area. But now it might be striking a deal with the Syrian government. The Turks, who dislike the Kurds, are trying to take this area back. And in desperation, the Kurds may be taking - may be about to make a deal with the Syrian government, which means that the government gets even more territory. So it really is a story about the government having the upper hand.

INSKEEP: Ruth, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock on the line from Beirut on this day when Syrian government forces are on the offensive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.