DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Syrian and Russian forces have intensified their attacks on one of the last rebel-held areas of Syria. Residents and medics say schools, homes and medical centers have been hit. This is in an area of northwestern Syria that had been set aside as a buffer zone between Turkish- and Russian-controlled areas.
The United States issued a really stark warning earlier this week saying violence here, quote, "will result in the destabilization of the region," end quote. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this from Beirut. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, there.
GREENE: So tell me more about this area. It's northern Syria's Idlib province, right? Why is it coming under attack, and why now?
SHERLOCK: Well, the main thing to know is that this is the area that's still controlled by opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Over the last few years in the war, the regime has taken back control of a lot of the country. And so now it's focusing a lot of its forces on this place. Ultimately, it's going to want to defeat opponents here - you know, especially on the southern fringes of the province, where there's an important highway that they need and other infrastructure.
The regime does blame rebels for escalating this bout of violence. And, as you say, there's a lot at stake here. It's a place that's swollen with civilians. A lot of people who've fled the fighting elsewhere in the country have taken refuge here, and aid workers are saying it would be a catastrophe if a full war took hold here.
GREENE: Oh, this is amazing. So this is where a lot of people who have fled violence arrived in huge numbers, thinking that this might be their one last safe...
GREENE: ...Space. And if there are that many civilians there - like, what do we know about these airstrikes so far? How badly are civilians being hit?
SHERLOCK: Well, yeah, there's estimated to be over 3 million civilians in this not huge area. And we're hearing of intense bombardments - airstrikes, barrel bombs. Those are these canisters. You know, they fill them with explosive and scrap metal and drop them. And apparently they're hitting towns and villages across the area. There is fighting going on between rebel groups in this area and the regime. But people are saying that there are civilians being hit and civilian infrastructure being hit also.
There's reports of hospitals attacked. One rescue worker we spoke to said a kindergarten had been destroyed. We spoke to another doctor who said the skies are never empty these days. And he said yesterday, in one village, a family died, the parents and two children. And they left behind this one little girl. He is just desperate, you know. He says this has been going on for years. And he feels like the international community just cares about numbers and not individuals. So to try to bring it home, he sent me a photo of the family that had died and said, take a look at them and the little girl who's now an orphan. She's no older than 3.
GREENE: Wow. I mean, that does just drive it home. Why was this area considered a buffer zone? And why has that now changed?
SHERLOCK: Well, this area was considered a buffer zone because Turkey was concerned about having refugees flood across its border if it became very unstable. So it formed a deal with Russia, who supports the Syrian regime, to try to keep the peace in this area. They're meant to be trying to keep joint patrols and basically stabilize the area. But both sides seem to be having trouble getting their allies, the rebels - sorry, Turkey's allies, the rebels, and Russia's allies, the regime - to actually get onboard with this. And now...
GREENE: All right.
SHERLOCK: You've got talks happening in Geneva on Friday with seven countries, including the U.S., to try to focus on this area. Historically, not a huge amount has come out of these talks. And both sides seem to be escalating the violence on the ground ahead of them to try to gain as much traction as they can.
GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.
SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.