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Russian-Turkish Presidents Broker Cease-Fire In Northwestern Syria


There is a cease-fire in Syria. Turkish forces have been fighting the Syrian regime, which is supported by Russia. So it is those two countries, Turkey and Russia, that have called the break in the violence around Idlib. The latest fighting there has pushed more than a million Syrian civilians toward the border with Turkey, which is currently closed. And U.N. officials say this is the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world right now. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us from near the Turkey-Syria border. Jane, good morning. What does it look like, feel like? Is the cease-fire holding?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. Yeah, it does seem to be. Syrian opposition monitors report there are no airstrikes from either side. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Moscow yesterday who hammered out this agreement to stop the fighting in northwest Syria. And there's a lot at stake for all these countries. It's been nine years of war. And Idlib province, across the border, it's the last opposition-held territory that Syria is fighting to reclaim. So what's happening now is being described as a tense calm.

MARTIN: All right. So the biggest concern here is the humanitarian situation, obviously. Can you just describe the conditions people have been living in?

ARRAF: Yes. This is a region, of course, that's used to a lot of upheaval, a lot of displacement, a lot of suffering on the part of children, families. This, by all accounts, has been just such a large-scale disaster. The big concern is shelter. There were children who literally froze to death, died of hypothermia. Thousands, in fact, are sleeping out in the open. There are dozens of hospitals and health centers that are no longer operating. Some of them were hit by airstrikes. There's hardly any sanitation. There isn't any sign yet of the coronavirus, but there are fears that it could start.

I spoke with a senior U.N. official, Mark Cutts, the deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. And he says this cease-fire is a good start, but he says even if it holds, the suffering isn't over.

MARK CUTTS: Well, unfortunately, it's going to take a long time to rebuild. We're not going to see people immediately being able to return to their areas. Many of them come from towns and villages that have now been completely demolished. We have a very difficult period ahead.

ARRAF: So there's nowhere else, basically, for these civilians to go. They're trying to get away from airstrikes and attacks, and that's why they're pushed up against this border with Turkey. Here's Mark Cutts again.

CUTTS: These people are really now trying to get to a safe place. But Turkey is not taking in more refugees. There's a wall that they cannot cross, and they are stranded in a war zone. These are 3 million people who are trapped in a war zone.

ARRAF: And some of these people, they've been displaced, like, five and six times.

MARTIN: Right. Jane, we've heard the stories about the migrants who are currently sitting at the border between Turkey and Greece; they can't get into Greece, and Turkey doesn't want them. I mean, now when you take into account all these other potential refugees, I mean, where are they going to go?

ARRAF: That is the question that's so complicated and so grim because, in nine years of war, almost 4 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, and most of them are living in towns and cities where there is already a lot of poverty. So Turkey wants them out. It invaded Syria in October with the intention of pushing at least some of them back across the border. But as the U.N. says, these people won't be able to go back; their homes are destroyed - so the homes destroyed, agricultural lands destroyed.


ARRAF: They're looking at a very, very tough time ahead.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you, Jane.

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

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.