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Leaders Of Russia, Turkey, Iran Meet For Syria Peace Talks

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Syria, many expect it's just a matter of time before the government there launches a full-on military assault on the final rebel stronghold in Idlib province. The U.N. has been urging Russia to help avert a, quote, "bloodbath" there. And this week, President Trump joined the call, warning Russia not to recklessly attack Idlib province. Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Iran and Turkey tomorrow to discuss the situation in Libya. Jan Egeland is the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He joins us now from Oslo. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you.

MARTIN: Syrian air forces, along with Russian support, have already been shelling Idlib this week. Can you begin by just describing the situation there right now as best you know it?

EGELAND: Well, what we hear from people on the ground is that there is panic now among civilians - and there are 2.9 million civilians in Idlib - because they've seen this relentless buildup of forces around this crowded province where there are 1.4 million internally displaced already. There's also been a buildup of fortifications by the very many armed opposition groups inside. So really, the civilians feel they are trapped in a potential crossfire that could be tremendous. Of course, we have to do whatever we can now to avoid this countdown to a war. It can still end insanity and in negotiations.

MARTIN: So let's talk about how that might come to be. I mean, these talks are moving forward. What tangible effect could they have? Will they have a tangible effect on the ground?

EGELAND: Well, I mean, tomorrow, Friday, in Tehran, Russia, Turkey and Iran are meeting on the highest levels. Idlib is on the agenda. They did declare this a de-escalation zone. And for quite some time, there was de-escalation I mean, less fighting in the place. What I'm fearing is that too many say there are too many terrorists there, groups that no one wants to touch, no one wants to talk with. What we say is among these 10,000, 15,000, whatever number of people belonging to Nusra and other fronts, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of civilians. There are more babies than terrorist fighters.

MARTIN: How do you then get rid of the terrorists without jeopardizing those civilian lives? I mean, as you articulate, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called Idlib a festering abscess that needs to be removed. Syrian officials call it a nest of terrorists. They clearly have an idea about who is living there and an intention to get rid of those people. As you note, there are civilians living there who will be at risk. How do you get rid of the threat without jeopardizing those lives?

EGELAND: So first, of course, have agreements with all of the groups that you can talk with. That is happening now. Secondly, via all sorts of angles, reach even those who have been listed as terrorists. There have been many agreements before where these terrorists even went on buses and left other besieged areas and went to Idlib. So it's not correct that no one's talked - that you cannot talk with these people. All of these armed acts have done it before. There were even talks with Islamic State fighters at the end of the of the onslaught on Raqqa, which was like eastern Aleppo, eastern Ghouta - an attack that in my view had much less attentions to the victims of terror and too much attention on killing terrorists.

MARTIN: Jan Egeland is the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He also chairs the U.N. Humanitarian Task Force on Syria. Thank you for your time, sir.

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