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Syria's Government Pushes Aleppo Offensive As Obama Leaves Office

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This week the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, said that President-elect Donald Trump could be a natural ally in fighting his opponents. He said this just as his forces launched a new offensive aimed at taking back the city of Aleppo. NPR's Alison Meuse spoke with rebels who were discouraged and civilians ready to settle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: Activist footage from the besieged rebel-held side of Aleppo shows the resumption of airstrikes on Tuesday. The U.N. says the last rations have been distributed for a quarter of a million people trapped on the rebel side of the city.

With the regime increasing its attacks, many say the resistance is unsustainable. I reached Ferhad Jaffar in the Netherlands. He's from Aleppo and helped found a key aid group there. He hasn't been back since May 2015 but keeps in close contact with friends and colleagues.

FERHAD JAFFAR: (Through interpreter) In the last few days, I've noticed - you know that Arabic word sakht - indignation? It's not so much anger as disgust - complaining about the situation. Three, four days ago, civilians stormed a warehouse that has food and basic stuff. And they emptied it. It's like they don't even worry about the rebel factions because they're fighting each other.

MEUSE: Jaffar says if the regime and its allies keep up the pressure, people won't have any choice but to accept a truce similar to those hammered out recently in several towns outside Damascus. Rebels withdrew to the countryside, and exhausted civilians remained in regime areas.

In Aleppo, however, rebels have released a statement vowing to fight to the end. Bassam Hajji Moustafa is a Turkey-based spokesman for the rebel group Noureddine al-Zinky.

BASSAM HAJJI MOUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) I think the plan to break the siege has failed, unfortunately. The Russian air force and the attacks have kept everyone busy.

MEUSE: He says the most rebels can accomplish at this point is securing aid for civilians. But Moustafa says they're not about to surrender. They don't believe the regime will honor a truce.

MOUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) Once surrender happens, the regime chooses its victim from the most prominent and passionate activists. And it detains people and tortures them until they all go back to being slaves.

MEUSE: But under the bombs, some say it's time to cut a deal. I reach Yasser Kour via internet. He's a father. He makes his living delivering bread made from dwindling flour supplies.

YASSER KOUR: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He says the prices of food and fuel have skyrocketed in the siege. A pound of meat now costs more than $20. And people have started protesting because the markets are empty. Kour says people are tired. And he knows friends on the government-held side are, too. He blames the local al-Qaida affiliate and its rebel allies for blocking any attempts at a truce.

KOUR: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He says, "As a citizen of this country, I hope for a settlement that can end the war and give people a chance to return and rebuild their lives."

The whole time we're talking, I can hear the frontline in the background. Then I hear the sound of kids. Little Qusay comes to say hello.

QUSAY: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: He's 12. And he says he's the older brother.

QUSAY: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: Qusay says his school closed when the strikes started up again. I ask, what do you tell your little brother when he's scared?

QUSAY: (Speaking Arabic).

MEUSE: "Don't be afraid," he says. "You can't be dead as long as you're living." Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.