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Apparent New Twist To Syria's Civil War Has Implications For The U.S.


Syria's civil war has been going on for nearly seven years, yet this conflict still has the capacity to shock. More than 200 people have been killed in the period of just 48 hours in one suburb of Damascus. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this from Beirut and joins us now.

Hi, Ruth.


MARTIN: This is all happening around this suburb called Ghouta. What are you hearing?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. Well, as you said, you know, this place has been at war for a long time. But the situation's really, really escalated since Monday. As you said, over 200 people have been killed according to monitoring groups. And the Union for Medical Care and Relief Organizations says that hospitals as well as civilian buildings are being targeted. They say that eight medical facilities were attacked yesterday. And that is just paralyzing the, like, limited medical ability that they already have to treat the wounded there. The images coming out are just hellish, those pictures of small children's corpses wrapped in shrouds.

We spoke to one doctor, Faiz Wadhabi (ph), who says he's in Ghouta. And he talked to us about the situation there.

FAIZ WADHABI: It's a very, very sad situation for us as a doctor, for the patients, for all the family.


WADHABI: People are underground now trying to stay alive as long as they can.

SHERLOCK: He told me also that he treated one woman who was pregnant. A piece of shrapnel pierced her stomach and killed her baby. And in the strike, she also lost limbs - so terrible situation.

MARTIN: I mean, these are horrific anecdotes of violence there. What can you tell us about why this particular town is being targeted now?

SHERLOCK: So this area, which is kind of a big area - it says it's up to about - well, it's estimated it's up to about 350,000 to 400,000 people living there. And it's held by rebel groups, and it's one of the last main rebel-held parts of Syria. And it's right near Damascus. So it's a threat to the regime. The rebels have been shelling out. And it has hit - those shells have also hit civilians in Damascus. Now the government's fighting back in a major way, and it's believed that they're preparing a ground offensive. So this is kind of pummeling the area from the air before troops - which are believed to be amassing on the edges - then try to move in.

The U.N. has been issuing these desperate calls for a cease-fire. There's been many, many statements over the last few days. Yesterday, UNICEF, the children's agency, just didn't know what else to say. It issued a one-page release, which was a blank page apart from a single line - we no longer have words to describe children suffering and our outrage.

But it seems that, so far, these calls are not being heeded.

MARTIN: So I understand the Syrian government is also working to take back territory elsewhere in the country, in particular in a place in the north called Afrin. What can you tell us about that?

SHERLOCK: Yeah. So the Syrian war is incredibly complicated now, with different international actors getting involved. And the different parts of the country have conflicts for different reasons. In Afrin, which is near the Turkish border - in recent weeks, Turkish troops have attacked the area because it's controlled by Kurdish militias, the YPG, who Turkey considers a terrorist organization. So the Turks have attacked with full force. The YPG has been losing ground. So in a desperate bid not to lose the area entirely to the Turks, they've now invited pro-Syrian government militias to kind of fight alongside them in that town.

MARTIN: So - I mean, this only is complicating an already fraught relationship between Turkey and Syria.

SHERLOCK: Well, exactly. The Turks have said that they're not going to stop their offensive on Afrin despite the fact that the Syrian government or pro-regime militias are now involved. In fact, they shelled the area and forced these pro-regime militias to pull back. So what that means is that you've now got Turkey and Syria in a position to fight each other directly for the first time in the war. That complicates the conflict even more. There's all these international actors already involved. The United States, Russia, Iran and Israel all have interests there. More and more, the war in Syria is about these competing interests rather than the original reasons for the conflict. And as we're seeing, it's all at a huge cost to human life.

MARTIN: Right - the Syrians caught in the middle. NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks so much.

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.