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Syrian Government On The Verge Of Taking Back Important Town From Rebels In Civil War


After months of airstrikes and a high civilian death toll, the Syrian government looks to be on the verge of taking back another important town. We're eight years now into the country's civil war, and the last rebel province is under sustained attack. Today, the attention is on Khan Shaykhun, a place where rebel fighters and civilians have taken refuge after other areas were retaken by the government. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now to talk about it from Beirut.

Hey, Ruth.


CHANG: So tell us why this town is so important.

SHERLOCK: So it's been a main rebel stronghold for many years, and it's also extremely strategic. You know, it's located on the M5 highway, which links the city of Aleppo with the capital Damascus. So retaking it is both a symbolic victory for the regime and a strategic blow for the Syrian rebels. Syrian troops say they've made major advances into the city, and the rebel opposition jihadist group that mainly controls the area says they've redeployed to southern areas but are still fighting. Local residents say there's just heavy, heavy bombardment at the moment with airstrikes ongoing.

CHANG: And how have the government forces managed to gain the upper hand in this case?

SHERLOCK: Well, they've had a lot of help from their allies, international allies, Russia through its airpower and Iran with troops on the ground. Syrians living in these areas also talk about the regime's tactics, saying that they've actually been targeting civilian areas with the idea of displacing populations. In particular, hospitals may have been targeted. The World Health Organization says that some 39 attacks on health facilities have taken place since the fighting began in the main in April. And the U.N. secretary-general has authorized an inquiry into whether the coordinates for those facilities that were shared by the U.N. to the regime's ally, Russia, in order to protect those hospitals were actually used to target them. So to get a sense of this from the ground, I spoke to a doctor who works in the clinic just a few kilometers away from where the fighting is. His clinic is actually built underground to protect from airstrikes. He asked that we don't use his name for his own protection.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says that one of the hardest things about being a doctor in this area is that you constantly have to decide who you give a chance at life to. He says they're so inundated with wounded, there isn't enough medicine or staff to treat everybody, so he's constantly having to make these decisions.

CHANG: Listening to you describe all these details, it raises the question, what has it been like for civilians overall? What are you hearing?

SHERLOCK: Well, in this fighting specifically, the U.N. says that some 500 civilians have died since the fighting began in April.


SHERLOCK: Local groups say that number is higher. And overall, about half a million people have been internally displaced just within the province. But the thing is that this was already an area of refuge for people who fled from other parts of Syria, escaped fighting elsewhere. And so lots of these people have moved, you know, three, four, five times already. Now they're pushing up against the border with Turkey, but that border is closed. So aid groups are trying to respond, but they say they don't have enough supplies to cope. I spoke to a resident today who lives in the northern part of the province, and he says, you know, this is a rural area. It's full of olive groves. And it feels like every tree has a family sheltering under it because that's the only place they have left to live.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock from Beirut.

Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. 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.