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Rebels Make Gains In Ongoing Fighting In Syria

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Deb Amos about the latest from the fighting in Syria, where rebels continue to fight President Bashar Assad's army. Most recently, rebels captured the largest electricity producing dam, parts of an major oil field and military airfields in the north.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In Syria, rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's army demonstrated new momentum this past week. The regime suffered a series of strategic losses after rebels captured an important dam, parts of a major oil field and military airfields in the north. Now, the focus of the fight is around the international airport in Aleppo. The battles have displaced thousands of civilians.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins U.S. from Antakya in southern Turkey.

Deb, there has been a stalemate for weeks. Is this a new phase of the fight?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Rachel, it seems that this phase started about two weeks ago. Now, there are unconfirmed reports of new weapons reaching rebel groups; shipments of specialized weapons from outside Syria. We've seen videos posted that shows sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

For weeks, the rebel fight for the international airport in Aleppo had been stalled. But in the past few days, rebels seized two military bases that defend this airport. On Thursday, they kicked off what they call the final push. It's a key strategic asset for the Assad regime, so this is an intense fight last night. The regime fired a surface-to-surface missile into Aleppo, say activists and other reporters who are based there. But, at the same time, rebels are capturing more weapons from Syrian army bases.

MARTIN: So what does this mean about the survival of the regime? An oil field and a dam are not just strategic, but it's about resources - fuel and electricity.

AMOS: The regime does not appear on the brink of collapse but these are major setbacks in the north. And the area that the government controls is certainly shrinking. Now, there's also heavy fighting in the capital, Damascus. And to add to civilian misery, the government news agency reported a major power failure in the capital. So it was the capital and cities south all the way to the Jordanian border. Some of that electricity went on this morning.

MARTIN: Deb, you've done a lot of reporting about the impact of all of this on the Syrian civilian population. How is this latest fighting affecting them?

AMOS: We've seen dramatic numbers in Syrians displaced by the fighting. International aid organizations are warning, again, that this is a catastrophe. Earlier this week, we saw some of the first U.N. convoys reach rebel-held areas. That's where the need is greatest. Some of these places have 20,000 people just in one camp. And this is the first time that U.N. aid to reach them.

MARTIN: Why is it that so hard? Why is it so hard to get U.N. aid convoys up to the north to the rebel held areas?

AMOS: The U.N. won't enter any part of Syria without government permission and the Syrian government determines where the aid goes, who delivers it. These are approved Syrian government aid groups. Take, for example, USAID. The majority of money the U.S. government gives for Syrian aid goes through the U.N. system, so it is only now reaching the rebel-held areas.

The Assad government only recently gave permission to do what's called cross-line aid. And what that means is you cross into rebel-held territory. It also means the aid convoys have to come all the way up from Damascus. It's dangerous. We've seen that dozens of aid workers have been killed delivering aid throughout Syria.

MARTIN: If the displaced are mostly along the northern border, why can't the aid go through Turkey?

AMOS: It's exactly what the Syrian political opposition is asking. What they say is there has to be both - cross-line and cross-border through Turkey. For the first time, the Syrian National Coalition has a humanitarian aid unit, the ACU - it's based in southern Turkey. And Adeb Shishakly, he heads the operation. What we're seeing is some international non-government aid groups have been quietly moving flour and blankets into northern Syria. But this crisis is going to take a larger effort, he says.

The latest U.N. mission coming up from Damascus - those 40 convoys - will deliver aid for about 25,000 people. But there are at least 200,000 in desperate need, with about a million people displaced in the northern provinces. And that's according to the latest assessment by the opposition. So there has to be cross-line and cross-border, says Shishakly. And here's what he said.

ADEB SHISHAKLY: No matter how much aid and food baskets, flour we are getting in, it's not enough. And the number of people trying to cross illegally increased dramatically. If we want the people not to leave Syria, we really need to move and do cross-border operation. Without cross-border operation, we might have millions in the next month coming.

AMOS: That's Adeb Shishakly, with the Syrian opposition, He's coordinating humanitarian aid inside Syria. And we have seen here the dramatic increases of Syrians coming to Turkey just this week.

MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Antakya, Turkey. Deb, thanks so much.

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

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