Alice Fordham

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.

In this role, she reports on Lebanon, Syria and many of the countries throughout the Middle East.

Before joining NPR in 2014, Fordham covered the Middle East for five years, reporting for The Washington Post, the Economist, The Times and other publications. She has worked in wars and political turmoil but also amid beauty, resilience and fun.

In 2011, Fordham was a Stern Fellow at the Washington Post. That same year she won the Next Century Foundation's Breakaway award, in part for an investigation into Iraqi prisons.

Fordham graduated from Cambridge University with a Bachelor of Arts in Classics.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

On a sky-blue Sunday morning in the little town of Tell Tamer in northeastern Syria, sunlight pours through olive trees, dappling the path to a church that has for almost a century been the center of an Assyrian Christian community.

But inside the Church of Our Lady, the sound of sobbing mixes with the ancient Aramaic chants. Photographs of three people are on display at the front, propped up on white cloths embroidered with roses, next to silver crosses and golden bells; the mass is in their memory.

Blink, and you'd miss the little airstrip surrounded by farmland and tiny, mud-built villages in northeastern Syria.

There are no checkpoints outside it. Nothing to stop people driving past — just two Syrian Kurdish guards out front, smoking cigarettes. The strip itself is just visible behind berms that earth movers are bolstering.

At a rehabilitation center in Turkey, just over the border from Syria, Bassam Farouh raises and lowers leg weights, wincing and holding onto a rail.

The gray-haired Farouh is a Syrian rebel fighter who battled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army for years, until he was wounded in a Russian airstrike on his hometown across the border two months ago.

"It wasn't a war at first, it was a revolution against the system," he says. "We were trying to take a stance against the system and that led us here."

A whistle shrills, and a dozen boys tear across a gray schoolyard. Some are in sneakers, others have bare feet slapping the concrete. "This is a physical education class," announces Metin Yildiz, the director of education at Elbeyli refugee camp in southern Turkey.

About 24,000 Syrians have been living in this government-run camp for three years, costing the Turkish government $3 million a month, and our guides are keen to show us Turkish classes, a kindergarten, a computer lab, an art display.

Iraq's war against the Islamic State is gaining momentum. Intensified U.S. airstrikes and more than a year of U.S. training of Iraqi soldiers seem to be paying off. ISIS supply lines have been cut and its access to oil has been reduced. When Iraqi forces with coalition airstrikes retook the western city of Ramadi, it was the latest in a series of successes.

But ISIS is just one of many groups trying to carve out power for itself in a country where the central government is looking ever weaker.

On a little patch of grass outside a police station in the small town of Rubayda in northern Iraq, a half-dozen women with small children sit on a rug, with a haggard-looking group of men nearby, eager to talk about how they walked here.

"Day and night, for 48 hours, without food or water or sleep," says Khalaf Hussein Karam, a former soldier with a deeply lined face. He escaped from his town in the Islamic State-held area around the city of Hawija. With numerous relatives including women and children, he crossed the Hamrin mountain range.

Nine months ago, the only way into Tikrit was to roll along dirt roads recently cleared of ISIS explosives. You also had to avoid celebratory gunfire as Iraqi security forces and their allies wildly announced their victory over the extremist group.

The city, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, was deserted at the time. After months of ISIS occupation followed by heavy fighting, houses were shattered, public buildings were burned and there was no electricity or water.

Let's start on the front line of every faltering economy: the grocery store. In a Baghdad shop lined with baskets of spices and rose petal tea, owner Osama al-Hassani is measuring out roasted, salted beans.

"Is that enough?" he says to a customer.

It's not very much. The customer says he'll actually take a bit less. And the shopkeeper complains that this is the situation now. He says he used to have 30 workers in his store and now he has only two. Business has been down for months. His customers are squeezed and worried

On a cold desert morning full of birdsong and smokers' coughs, the head of Iraq's special forces is holding court in the master bedroom of a commandeered family home, perched on the edge of a rumpled pink bed and lighting his first cigarettes of the day.

"In Ramadi city, and Ramadi's suburbs, ISIS is broken, they no longer exist," declares Maj. Gen. Fadhil Barwari, blowing smoke over curlicued bedroom furniture.

Like everyone else, the Republican candidates talk about ISIS a lot. And what they — at least Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — charge is that ISIS is President Obama's fault, because he withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011 — when he should have kept them there to keep a lid on the insurgency.

Let's Break It Down:

Editor's Note: Jordan is a staunch ally of the US in the war against ISIS. A year ago, it paid a price when one of its planes crashed in Syria and ISIS captured a pilot. NPR's Alice Fordham kept in touch with his family

It was so cold, the day I first met the parents of Moath al-Kasasbeh, that they were wearing coats in their immaculate living room as they waited to receive me. Bundled up, they looked solid and dignified.

Their 26-year-old son, the captured pilot, was then probably the most famous man in Jordan after King Abdullah II.

It's a common sight in Lebanon: a construction site where every laborer slapping cement onto cinder blocks is a Syrian refugee working illegally. The men take a break to smoke and to tell me how things are.

Yeah, they say, their breath clouding the cold air. Of course they owe money.

"Especially in wintertime," says Radwan Mahmoud. "The jobs are getting less and less."

The farms near this village in the fertile Bekaa Valley don't need laborers now.

There's something regal about Abdi Ismail. The white-bearded paterfamilias sits cross-legged on a mattress, a scarf wrapped turban-like round his head, his children and chickens keeping a respectful distance.

Ismail's extended family lives in a tent stamped with U.N. logos. He's proud they're here.

"We didn't leave our mountain," he says. "We stayed here and we fought."

They've been eking out an existence on the rugged slopes of Iraq's Mount Sinjar since ISIS took their village of Tal Azer in summer last year.

In the cinderblock Iraqi villages clustered around Mount Sinjar's rippling, craggy slopes, the mood is euphoric.

Fighters who retook the city late last week from ISIS — with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes — race along cratered roads, cheering children crammed in the back of their trucks, flags cartoon-bright in the pure, intense winter sunshine.

Kurdish forces raised their flag Friday as they advanced into the center of the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, facing little resistance from Islamic State fighters who have held it for 15 months. Kurdish officials called it a liberation.

But for the Yazidi minority who were driven out of Sinjar by ISIS in an orgy of sectarian violence, the victory may not be the prelude to a homecoming.

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Palestinians sit in a line of idling cars that stretches downhill, waiting to be allowed out of their East Jerusalem neighborhood via a road partially sealed off by Israeli police.

Around the corner, Palestinian driver Waleed Mattar has stopped the school bus at a row of new, sharp-edged concrete cubes blocking his usual route. The kids now have a long walk home.

This is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Jabel Mukaber, with a population of more than 20,000 and a median age of just 18.

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To talk about how the Russian air campaign is affecting what's happening with rebel and regime fighters on the battlefield, NPR's Alice Fordham is here in the studio. Hey there, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

More than a year after the U.S. led the formation of an anti-ISIS coalition, the extremists still hold large parts of western and northern Iraq.

In the west, ISIS took the desert provincial capital, Ramadi, four months ago. A much-anticipated counteroffensive never materialized.

In a small area of Anbar Province that ISIS doesn't control, five Iraqi flags on bent brass poles mark out a parade ground bordered by a junkyard and dilapidated warehouse.

The Baghdad City of Peace Carnival started four years ago, with a young woman named Noof Assi.

"We started talking to people about a celebration for peace day in Baghdad," Assi says. She's referring to International Peace Day, which is September 21 — and which hadn't been celebrated in the war-beleaguered Iraqi capital.

"Everybody was taking it as a joke and never taking us seriously," she says, "because, like, in Baghdad? Celebrating peace?"

Behind a rusty black gate in the rough-edged Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad, a home echoes with sobs as relatives mourn two children drowned as their family tried to get to Europe.

The mother, Zainab Abbas, is pale and exhausted from weeping.

"No one told us not to go," she says.

Everyone knew she and her husband were poor and, amid Iraq's dismal security and economy, thought their best hope was to try to get smugglers to take them to Greece.

The smugglers "are liars," she says. "They take money and send people to their deaths."

At first it seems lively outside on the weekend in Baghdad — the lights are bright in open-air cafes, music streams from beribboned cars in a wedding party and at Ali Hussein's juice stand, decorated with plastic bananas, they're squeezing oranges on old brass presses.

But even as Hussein offers me a sharp, fresh juice, he's downcast. When I ask about the subject on everyone's mind here — the migrant flood into Europe — he laughs. "We were just talking about this!" he says. Several of his friends just passed by to say farewell.

The sun is beating down on the rocky shore of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, and architect Mona Hallak is taking her son and his friends to see their heritage.

"Who knows how to swim?" asks Hallak, an advocate for public beaches in Lebanon.

The kids say they can, but they learned in private beach clubs. Hallak tells them of the past, when Beirutis learned to swim in the sea because the shore was all public. She shows them a nearby area that was open and has been fenced off. She fears it, too, will be built on as many other places have been.

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A small group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters entered northern Syria late last month and waited for their mission. They were on a base, with American supplies that included heavy machine guns, communications technology and laser pointers for directing airstrikes.

These fighters are, in effect, the elite members of a much bigger rebel group called Division 30. Their mission is to fight the self-declared Islamic State, though there are multiple factions involved in the Syrian civil war.

Beirut is usually one of the pleasanter places in the Middle East — a bright, cosmopolitan city squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and a green ridge of mountains. But for the past two weeks or so, the stench from mounds of festering garbage has filled its gaudy streets.

"The trash is climbing up, the mountain is getting higher and higher," says one immaculately dressed, middle-aged woman with a perfect bouffant, wrinkling her nose. She wouldn't give her name because she criticizes powerful people — Lebanon's politicians, whom she holds responsible for the garbage crisis.

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