AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Syrian civil war intensified over this past weekend with heavy airstrikes by the Syrian government and its Russian ally against rebel areas. The strikes were in largely civilian areas, hitting homes and hospitals. We're joined now by NPR's Ruth Sherlock to talk about these airstrikes. She's following this from Beirut. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.
CHANG: I know you've been able to talk to some people already in these areas that have been under attack. What are they saying about the conditions there?
SHERLOCK: Well, they're saying that this is the most intense air campaign that's happened since the start of this year. And local activists are saying that in the north of the country, in the province of Idlib alone, there was over 150 airstrikes in the space of a few hours on...
SHERLOCK: ...Sunday night. Of course that's not an exact figure, but we can say that clearly there were heavy barrages of attacks on towns across the province. And the curious thing is that they hit areas far away from the front line - so in - kind of where civilians live. I spoke with Raed Fares, an activist who runs a local radio station in Kafranbel. That's a town where a hospital was hit. And it's a pretty bad phone line, but he's talking about those moments when he woke up to the sound of the bombs.
RAED FARES: They attacked the hospital four times. It's very close to us, so it was horrible to wake up on this sound. Everything was shaking.
SHERLOCK: So there he's saying that the hospital was hit with four different airstrikes on Sunday morning. And he sent me pictures of that hospital. It was entirely gutted and walls broken down. And he said that 15 other buildings were also hit in the town. And in another town nearby called Maarrat al-Nu'man, there was another hospital that was reportedly hit. Activists were posting videos of babies who were struggling for breath after they were ripped out of incubators to be evacuated. And there were also attacks in another area near Damascus that's rebel-held. It's an area under siege. And they said that there was estimates of at least 29 people killed from airstrikes there.
CHANG: Why are these attacks happening in these particular areas? I mean, how do they fit into the larger civil war?
SHERLOCK: Well, Idlib is 1 of 2 of the last major rebel enclaves in the country, and it's where pro-opposition families have fled to as the regime has made gains in other parts of the country. And it was seen as a kind of safe area. But in - since Christmas, the regime has been making a concerted effort to try to take this area back.
The kind of immediate cause was that opposition groups shot down a Russian fighter jet. And so the Russians have said that they responded with what they called precision air strikes. But there's also a wider context here, which is that the Russians had arranged peace talks in January that they hoped would move things forward. But the Syrian opposition boycotted those talks. And so analysts I've spoken to say, you know, this may be an attempt at sort of taking revenge on areas that are sympathetic to that opposition.
CHANG: And there are reports that these airstrikes are dropping chemical weapons. Is that really happening?
SHERLOCK: Yes, that's right. There are reports that in a town in Idlib province, again, called Saraqib, there were chlorine gas bombs that were dropped. A group called the Syrian American Medical Society said the 11 patients. And the White Helmet volunteer rescuers, this...
SHERLOCK: ...Rescue group that operates in the area, said that people had suffocating symptoms. And there's video showing people choking as they're hosed down with water to try to remove the effects of the gas.
CHANG: We've seen chemical weapons used in this war before, and it's been raised with the international community. What has been done? What is being done?
SHERLOCK: Well, today, Nikki Haley, the United States' ambassador to the U.N., raised this at the U.N. Security Council and expressed her frustration that not more is being done. She pointed the finger at Russia that has consistently vetoed any U.N. Security Council efforts to take action on this and indeed the joint investigative mechanism that was investigating these attacks - so a lot of frustration at the moment but no concerted plan of action.
CHANG: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock from Beirut. Thanks, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.