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Marking 10 Years Of War In Syria

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It may be hard to remember now, but a decade ago, in March 2011, a wave of pro-democracy uprisings was sweeping the world, particularly the Middle East. In many countries, that so-called Arab Spring yielded some changes. Authoritarian leaders were toppled, elections were held, even if the promise of democracy was never quite fully realized. In one country, Syria, what began a decade ago turned into a civil war that is still going on, and that's what we want to focus on for the next few minutes.

Monday marks the 10th anniversary of the start of anti-government protests in Syria, which were soon followed by a violent government crackdown. Rebels took up arms, and the conflict broke Syria into areas controlled by numerous factions, including al-Qaida-linked groups, ISIS and Kurdish forces. Now the regime of Bashar al-Assad has the upper hand, retaking much of the country. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has covered the war from the beginning, and she is with us now.

Ruth, thank you so much for joining us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to start with the people. I mean, there are staggering figures for what the people of Syria have been through and how many people have left. Would you just walk us through some of those?

SHERLOCK: Yes. You know, as you say, Michel, the figures are truly staggering. Monitors say that some half a million people have been killed, although the reality is that the figures could actually be much higher. And, you know, it's a war. All sides have committed atrocities, but the Syrian regime and its Russian allies have repeatedly hit hospitals, bakeries and other civilian targets with airstrikes. Rebels complain that world powers, the U.S., other Western countries and the U.N. haven't done enough to try to stop this or back them.

And, you know, the other thing the Syrian government has done is repeatedly dropped barrel bombs. These are these oil barrels full of TNT explosives from helicopters onto homes and villages in opposition areas. Fared Alhor is a Syrian journalist living in Idlib, a city held by the rebel opposition. And in 2016, his home was destroyed by shelling.

FARED ALHOR: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says, "the shelling was crazy. It was a scorched-earth campaign. They kept shelling and shelling until everyone left, and the area was empty." Not so much recently, but there have also been chemical attacks in Syria. And, you know, all of this has led to some 13 million people being forced to abandon their homes. That's more than half the population, Michel. And of those, more than 6 million live as refugees outside of Syria. There's this diaspora now of millions living in Turkey, Lebanon, Germany and other parts of the world.

MARTIN: Wow. That's just remarkable. So, Ruth, you know, there are people on the regime side of the war, and I'd like to know what you hear from them - and acknowledging, of course, that there are limits that the government still places on expression.

SHERLOCK: There are limits. But there's also - you know, many people living in these areas think that - sort of genuinely do think that the regime is probably the best of an admittedly bad set of alternatives.

Talal Atrache is a Syrian journalist who lives in the city of Sweida. And he told me that even before the uprising, he'd supported pushing the Syrian government to give more personal freedoms. But he says he always thought the idea that you can actually remove a regime by a popular uprising or a Western-backed armed insurrection and then immediately have democracy was always doomed to fail.

TALAL ATRACHE: We know that in countries like Syria, where you don't have an alternative that is ready to take power and to govern the country, we know that any vacuum would lead to a total mess like it happened in Iraq and in Libya and in Afghanistan.

SHERLOCK: And many Syrians feel this way.

MARTIN: So, Ruth, in the minute or so that we have left, I just want to ask you, what are some of the issues and concerns that we need to be thinking about for the future?

SHERLOCK: Well, the future is really very bleak. You know, the Assad regime may have won the war, but the reality is that it's extremely weakened, and the economy has completely collapsed. I speak to Syrians who wait, you know, for a whole day just to get bread because there's so many shortages there. And the fighting is still ongoing in some areas. You have these Kurdish factions in the northeast, where you also have several hundred U.S. troops stationed there who are fighting ISIS and trying to counter Iran.

And the regime is continuing to advance on some of the last opposition-held areas. But you also have millions of civilians there, many of them displaced, living in camps. And many of them are actually wanted by the government and might never feel safe to go home.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut.

Ruth, thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.

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