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Top US envoy takes trip to remind the world that millions inside Syria still need aid

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The civil war in Syria may have dropped from the headlines, but after more than a decade, it is still not over. Today, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is near the Syrian border in Turkey. She's there to remind the world that there are still millions of people inside Syria who depend on U.N. aid. The government of Bashar al-Assad has retaken most of the country, but a few million people still live in an opposition-controlled region near the Turkish border. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the ambassador and joins us from southern Turkey. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So can you talk more about what prompted Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to take this trip now, in particular?

KELEMEN: So there's a deadline next month for the U.N. Security Council to renew an aid program from Turkey to Syria. We're talking about hundreds of trucks a day - food, medicine and other supplies that cross a part of the Syrian border that's controlled by opposition forces. Syria's government opposes this aid route, calling it a breach of sovereignty. Russia, which has veto power in the Security Council, is an ally of Syria. So it could block this aid route when it comes up for a vote next month. And U.S. officials say that could cut off, you know, about 4 million Syrians that really depend on these U.N. aid shipments. And by the way, they can't rely on the Syrian government and Russia aiding them because...

CHANG: Right.

KELEMEN: ...Those countries have a record of trying to starve out opposition areas in the country.

CHANG: OK. Well, who has Thomas-Greenfield been meeting with while she's been on the ground there?

KELEMEN: So, so far, she's been meeting mostly with Syrian refugees, including an aid group known as the White Helmets. She's also met with some small business owners from Syria. The ambassador says she heard some similar concerns from many of them today. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The main message is we are hearing from our relatives inside of Syria, they are suffering, and we don't want to be forgotten. And I think the message they have heard from me is that we have not forgotten Syria, and that's why I'm here.

KELEMEN: And by the way, she was speaking there inside this sweet shop run by three Syrian brothers. There was baklava and other amazing sweets piled high behind her. Yes, we got a taste of it.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KELEMEN: And Thomas-Greenfield was making a point of showing that refugees can contribute to countries like Turkey. That's an important message because a lot of Turkish citizens are growing weary of hosting so many refugees when the economy is in turmoil.

CHANG: Well, you mentioned that she met members of the White Helmets. This is the rescue group that operates in opposition areas and has received backing from the U.S. in the past. And I'm curious, what was their message to the ambassador and to the rest of the world?

KELEMEN: Well, they worry that Ukraine is taking the focus off of Syria. We spoke to one board member, Amara al-Samu (ph), who says that Russian troops are doing the same things in Ukraine as they did in Syria. Just take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMARA AL-SAMU: It's connected, I think. The war in Syria and your war in Ukraine is connected. It's one war, against human beings, against people who want their dignity, who want their freedom. This is one war.

KELEMEN: So now the question is whether Russia is going to allow aid to flow into Syria from Turkey for another year. It's going to be a big challenge for U.N. diplomats. There's another concern, Ailsa, and that is about a potential Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. That's just a reminder of how complicated this war is, and how tenuous the situation is.

CHANG: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen on the Turkey-Syria border. Thank you so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.