ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Syria, as government troops and Russian forces have taken control of rebel-held areas, they have given some people a chance to flee. Many have gone to the province of Idlib. A partial ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey began today. Already there have been sporadic violations, and the deal might not apply to Idlib anyway. NPR's Alison Meuse spoke with people there who say their supposed refuge is increasingly dangerous.
ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: The U.N. says more than 35,000 people have been evacuated from Aleppo to relative safety in the rebel-held countryside, primarily the province of Idlib. By doing that, they're joining thousands of others who fled regime advances in other areas. To find out about conditions there, NPR reached anti-regime activist Malak Refaie on an internet call.
MALAK REFAIE: (Speaking Arabic).
MEUSE: Refaie has been living in Idlib province for four months ever since the Syrian army took over his Damascus suburb. Like people from Aleppo, Refaie left his hometown as the regime took over and allowed rebels and dissidents to go to Idlib.
REFAIE: (Through interpreter) Many people are here against their wishes. They were displaced from their towns and forced to come to Idlib.
MEUSE: He says rural populations have swelled as Syrian troops and their allies have forced people from Aleppo and beyond.
REFAIE: (Through interpreter) These towns are very small. They were considered villages before the revolution. Populations were in the thousands, maybe 10,000 at most. Now there are hundreds of thousands.
MEUSE: Refaie says everyone is panicked that Assad's forces will attack Idlib next.
REFAIE: (Through interpreter) Nowadays, even children are worried about this, the elderly and women, too. They talk about the army capture in Aleppo and how Idlib must be next.
MEUSE: In the last days of the Aleppo offensive, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that battle was linked to a larger fight for the countryside and Idlib.
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BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Speaking foreign language).
MEUSE: In a recent interview with a Russian broadcaster, Assad says Syria and its allies Russia and Iran will decide when to deal with Idlib. Syria analyst Aron Lund says Idlib is still a huge territory able to put up a fight against the regime, but it's not likely to get significant military support from the U.S. or Turkey. And that's because al-Qaida-linked factions dominate the province.
ARON LUND: It's turning too toxic I think. And you know, I've talked to both people on the opposition side and people on the government side. From both of those camps, I've heard the same expression used - that Idlib is turning into Kandahar.
MEUSE: Activist Refaie says those extremist groups are also repressive toward local populations and the displaced. He went to Idlib to escape the regime but says the rebels aren't behaving much different.
REFAIE: (Through interpreter) Any activist who challenges the policies of a given armed faction gets assaulted. Even civilians who demonstrate against an armed faction get assaulted at times or kidnapped. The security branches operated by opposition factions are sometimes just as bad as the regime's security branches.
MEUSE: But Refaie says the armed groups have allowed some demonstrations lately perhaps to show people are allowed to speak out there.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Arabic).
MEUSE: In activist video, demonstrators can be heard chanting against the divided rebel factions. Refaie says the demonstrators' goal is to show there are still people in Idlib who want dignity and freedom and need support. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.