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In Syria, Tensions And Buildings Burn


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over 18 months Syria has come unraveled. Infuriated by government brutality and emboldened by the Arab Spring, protestors in provincial cities took to the streets and spawned a movement that evolved in the face of ever-escalating violence to a revolution.

Unthinkably a year and a half ago, rebels challenged the government in the streets of Aleppo and Damascus. Unthinkably 18 months ago, rebels control villages and town and parts of Syria's border. Unthinkably 18 months ago, there are 30,000 dead and counting.

NPR's Deborah Amos is just back from another tour on the Syrian border. If you have questions for her about Syria's civil war, give us a call. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're also going to speak with Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Later in the program, Ari Shapiro on the targeting of political television ads. But first, Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. She's just back from Turkey, as we mentioned, and she joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome home, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I have to ask you: As this story has evolved into civil war, what surprised you this time around? What's changed?

AMOS: There's always something new when you go. This time crossing the border and seeing some towns figuring out how to run themselves, I think there's a big debate about let's prepare for the day after. Certainly the State Department is very involved in the day after, you know, when Assad is gone.

There are people who argue that that day has already come in many villages in the north, that young people, young activists, as well as rebels, are learning how to run towns. The main thing they have to do is move the wounded. There's still a great deal of bombing in the north, and so their tasks are very tough, to get refugees settled, to move the wounded, but they are learning governance in northern Syria.

CONAN: And this, these strips along the border where these rebels are in control, one gets the impression that if the government troops weren't quite so busy in Aleppo and Damascus, they could eliminate these at their whim.

AMOS: I think they certainly could. It is true that the regime controls the air. The rebels control the ground. The air is winning at this moment because to live in one of these towns, to never known when your time is up, to have no air raid sirens, no warnings whatsoever, people have learned to just listen. Even little kids can tell you the difference between an incoming shell and what a plane sounds like because that's what people have to do to survive.

There are reports of people living in caves. You know, there are archaeological sites all over northern Syria, and people do live in caves to save their lives. Life is not easy there, but I did see restaurants open, I saw barber shops full, I saw people rebuilding damaged homes.

So there is a way that you deal with this horrible mayhem, but at the same time you're happy because regime troops aren't in your neighborhood, people are not being arrested, off to be tortured, having dead bodies show up in the trashcans, which is happening in places where the regime is still in control. So it's bad, and it's kind of good.

CONAN: And we hear reports that the Free Syrian Army has moved its headquarters, such as it is, into these liberated areas. Are the rebels learning governance? Are they learning to work together? Are those political realities that you only learn by governing, are they beginning to be absorbed?

AMOS: Well, let me say one thing about the Free Syrian Army moving into northern Syria. The Free Syrian Army is a banner. It's a brand. It's a slogan. It's what kids yell when they see guys in - with guns on the street. It is not an organization. There are rebel brigades. They are becoming more organized under military councils, but the leadership from Turkey moving in, if that gives you an idea that this is a bunch of guys in cars who cross the border, it's just not like that.

If - when they crossed the border, they did it for their own credibility, which is seriously damaged. Nobody pays any attention to those colonels and generals who defected, who've been living in that camp watching sports shows and, you know, eating well. The people who are doing the work are on the ground.

Your second point is an interesting one. In some places, al-Bab, for instance, a town of 100,000 people, they have a 48-member council. There are 12 activists on the council; there are 32 from the rebel brigades, but they're not fighters themselves, they are simply representatives. These are the political arm of the rebel group.

So it's complicated and interesting about who is serving on these councils, who is fighting, as these Syrians learn governance.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, let's bring you into the conversation. He also joins us here in Studio 3A, and again, a senior fellow at the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The significance of these liberated zones, I think, can be overstated to some degree, as Deb reminded me, interestingly. And then there's also the fact that this is a step that is, again, 18 months ago absolutely unthinkable.

ANDREW TABLER: That's right. We don't have - the opposition calls them liberated areas. But as Deb explained, it's more complicated than that. I think what we have are disputed areas, and they're areas where the regime on the ground is not present, but it still is able to come in and strike using its air force, helicopter gunships, (unintelligible) trainer aircraft, MIG-21s, consistently.

So what that allows is the regime can reassert itself. It can lash out in those areas. That's not liberated territory. Liberated territory is when the regime cannot come back into an area, and it's from - and that's usually where politically and militarily things begin to pivot. The opposition knows that, and they've been actually downing more aircraft recently.

But what they've been doing is they've been asking for more sophisticated weapons, anti-aircraft weapons to be specific, that would allow them to shoot down those aircraft, and once that happens, you have liberated territory in Syria, and you're one step further to overthrowing or to contracting and displacing the Assad regime.

And as you said, it's unbelievable 18 months ago, but this is the trajectory of the war at the moment, and this is the way it's likely to go here. At first you're going to have territory being liberated, and then eventually the regime contracting and going back to Damascus.

CONAN: In the meantime, though, terrible things are happening inside Syria, and the destruction in Aleppo over the past weekend, the past few days, Deb, we've seen the pictures. I know this - many of the people you talked to who come across the border into Turkey come from Aleppo.

AMOS: They do indeed, and you have eight miles of covered souks in the Old City of Aleppo. This is a World Heritage site. It is a tragedy for Syrians who feel it acutely and have been angry in a way that even 20,000 dead have not touched them. You know, to lose this kind of heritage has been a terrible thing for Syria. I called some people this morning to find out how it was going.

The first fires have been put out. There are secondary and tertiary fires that have started up again in the Old City. I want to say one thing about the refugees. We have a humanitarian crisis coming that's worse than anything that we've seen. We have the winter coming, and this is the second winter.

There has been a recent study of the destruction of homes by the same people who have been doing the body count. They're pretty accurate, and they are talking about hundreds of thousands of homes that have been destroyed over the last 18 months, and perhaps the U.N. is saying as many as 700,000 Syrian refugees in the middle of the winter.

And in northern Syria, you know, forget this desert stuff about the Middle East. These are mountainous areas. They are cold in the winter. There is - there are thousands of people even today that are sleeping out in the olive groves on the Syrian side of the border because there's not enough room for them in the Turkish camps.

It is unclear to anybody what is going to happen to those people in this winter.

CONAN: And we've also been hearing reports about how the conditions are not so great on the other border, on the Jordanian side, where some of the refugees are having some problems with their hosts.

In the meantime, we have an email question from Stuart(ph) in Fresno: I've seen news reports in the last two weeks in the Los Angeles Times and in the New York Times that Hezbollah is sending fighters for the first time. Iran is increasing their own troops on the ground. We've heard Iranian advisors, Andrew Tabler, not necessarily Iranian troops.

TABLER: That's true. Actually, Iran two weeks ago admitted this, and they said that yes, they were training shabiha forces to make what's called (unintelligible), the popular army. And they said that there were 50,000 of them. And this, what this does is this dovetails with reports that you can see coming out in U.S. sanctions in which you have now people who are in Lebanon, including Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, being designated under U.S. sanctions on Syria for, among other things, supporting the creation of these kind of entities.

So Iran and Hezbollah are both involved, at least as we can see on the outside, you know, publicly coming out of the U.S. government and from these reports, on forming a smaller, perhaps more sectarian version of the regime. It's still very early, but it's a disturbing development.

CONAN: And Deb?

AMOS: Well, at the same time, I was thinking about this. This is a regime that has used the issue of no international intervention to beat the opposition and to divide the opposition. You know, there's been a great deal of controversy within different segments of the opposition about whether you want to call for airstrikes or a safe zone, and now we find out that the Assad regime has had foreign intervention all along, not only the Iranians, but there are reports that there are quiet burials inside southern Lebanon for Hezbollah people who have come either to act as snipers or to help with technical issues, on finding Facebook users, on breaking codes, for people who are speaking on Skype.

So the foreign intervention on the regime side has been quite extensive.

CONAN: And we should, for those, explain that Syria is the linkage between Iran and its allies, Hezbollah, who are in southern Lebanon.

And yes, those are their allies, and they have been actually working quite diligently to keep this regime afloat with money, and now we know with military backup as well.

We're talking with Deb Amos and Andrew Tabler about Syria. If you have questions about that country's civil war and where it's going, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION - stay with us - from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. The United Nations said today that 2012 is on track to set a new record for the highest number of refugees worldwide. In large part, that's because of Syria. Some 700 Syrians could flee to neighboring countries by the end of the year as rebels and government troops battle for control of cities, government buildings, military sites and border crossings.

At one refugee camp in Jordan, dozens of Syrians threw stones at police last week and smashed nearby offices. Many refugees demanded better food and living conditions. More than 30,000 Syrian refugees live in that camp alone. Today we're talking about the fighting that's driving them out of their country.

If you have questions about Syria's civil war, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos, with us for a rare appearance here in Studio 3A; and Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria."

And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Mark(ph) is with us from Cleveland.

MARK: Hello, thank you for inviting me into the conversation, I appreciate it. I just wanted to say I'm a Syrian-American, and I've been to Syria many times. I have family in Syria. And I've never felt so acutely being a minority. I am a Christian Syrian, and my family is torn on this situation. I'm against the regime.

I sympathize 100 percent with my Sunni and other co-religionists in Syria. My own family has suffered under this regime for many years. But one thing I wanted to bring to the attention of the panel is that I'm noticing a lot of the brigades that are rising up in the Free Syrian Army are very religious in the dimension that I'm just seeing a lot of religious names. And the fundamentalists (unintelligible) that I'm getting from this, it's very alien to Syria.

We've always lived together in peace and (unintelligible). So I'm (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: I'm afraid your cell phone is betraying you, Mark, but we'll - I think we got the gist of your question, thanks very much for the phone call.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: And Deb Amos, I wanted to begin with you. Remind us, this is, we are told, an Alawite-dominated government with Alawite-dominated fighting forces. This is a minority group within Syria. Most of the rebels are Sunni, and there are then these minorities, Kurds, Christians and others, who find themselves betwixt and between.

AMOS: Well, but let's talk just a minute about the numbers. This is a country that is 75 percent Sunni. And so when you think about who is doing the fighting, there are many Sunnis who are supporting the regime, and it has to simply by the numbers. Many of the recruits are Sunnis. Many of those on the front lines are Sunnis. Many of those pilots are Sunnis. So it is not as cut and dry.

I take the caller's point about the religious names, the Sunni Islamic names that the brigades are taking on. I ask a lot about this. One thing is that in the north, people were conservative Muslims before the outbreak of this conflict. The other thing I'm reminded of is there are no atheists in foxholes, that as young men get close to death, and so many of them have seen their friends die, and they know that they could very easily die, people do tend to make their peace with God and become more religious.

Are there jihadis out there? Yes, they are about 10 percent of the fighting force, radical Islamists. Their stature is growing, their influence is growing because they are well-armed, and they are very good fighters.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, let me also ask you about that other minority group, the Alawites. They have compatriots in Turkey, where I know you've just been, called Alevis in that country. But this is the group from which the president and his prominent leadership come, and we're told that there is going to be no political reconciliation possible in Syria unless, somehow, the Alawites can be convince that there is a future for them in a post-Assad Syria.

TABLER: Yeah, it - the problem we have is at the core of the regime we have Alawites, and they're followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib, and what that essentially means is it's a sort of heterodox offshoot of Islam, and they primarily come from the Syrian coast and from one area.

They dominate the center of the regime because they made their way up through the system through the military, and they dominate the security services in the army. They continue to fight. In fact, we haven't had any major defections from the Syrian regime, from the core of the regime, unless they simultaneously left the planet at the same time, OK. So this is not a - and this has been a policy of many governments to try and get more and more Alawites to break away from the regime.

The problem is that they haven't. They're actually huddling around each other. The problem is that now in order for this - for there to be some kind of resolution, when the regime gives way, or when it contracts, we're going to have t have part of the Alawites break away and actually deal with whatever is going to inherit the earth in Syria - politically.

And in that moment, based on some of the things that Deb was talking about and the caller, you have a lot of people who are very worried about their personal safety, especially what happens during the transition. And until that's resolved, and I don't know if it can be, I just don't think that you're - I think that you're likely going to have some Alawites who do lose their lives in the transition.

But unless you can mitigate the problems with that, it's going to be very difficult to get some sort of controlled demolition of the regime, and instead you're going to have a crash landing, and that's going to be very messy, and like you said, we already have 700,000 refugees. We could have many, many more.

CONAN: Let's go next to Randy(ph), Randy with us from Elkhart, Indiana.

RANDY: Hi, what happens if Syrian refugees without guns start going to the Russian military base in Syria? Do they shoot them, do they feed them, or do they put pressure on the Syrian government?

CONAN: That base in a port city, Tartus, very important to the Russians, Deb Amos.

AMOS: Indeed, it is, and I think it would be very difficult to have some march on the base in Tartus. The Russians have been drawing down. I think the Russians are much more worried about how Russian families - and there are a remarkably large number of Russian families that are in Syria, and they have been told to get home any way they can, not on airliners but to try to get out of the country and try and do it through Turkey or Iran or Jordan, or any other border they can get across.

CONAN: Are the Russians worried about a truck full of explosives?

AMOS: They - yes, but I also think that there is adequate security near Tartus. This is what the Russians are in charge of. I doubt that they would entrust that to the Syrians.

CONAN: And it's also pointed out that Tartus is part of that Alawite coastline, so this would not necessarily be the heartland of the opposition, so - but an interesting question, Randy, thanks very much.

RANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Dylan(ph), Dylan with us from Seattle.

DYLAN: Yeah, hi, thanks for inviting me into the conversation today.

CONAN: Go ahead.

DYLAN: Yeah, my question basically revolves around what do we know about the Free Syrian Army. I hear all the time that they're incredibly fractured, they're getting support from al-Qaida, the U.S. and other Western European countries. I'd just like to hear more about that.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, what can you tell us?

TABLER: The Free Syrian Army was originally founded by - and named, and Deb talked about this earlier, by a colonel named Riyad al-Assad, who has lived in a camp in southern Turkey since founding it in the summer of 2011. But in reality what it is, it's just referred to in the country as the Free Army. And the Free Army basically consists of several different variants.

One are officers who have defected from the military. And they came up through the Baathist system, and many times they are, they are secular, more secular than some others you would meet in these forces. And what I mean by that is they don't use as many Islamic greetings, they shake women's hands and so on.

Then you have local people who get involved the fight, and they really can be, oftentimes, more religious, more religiously conservative. And then you have some activists who have been folded into the Free Syrian Army who are kind of around them.

These three groups, you could say, form more or less the base of it. But you have about 350 katiba or batallions, in name, of which about 100 or so are really active and have some cases thousands of people under their command. As Deb mentioned, some of those katiba are more fundamentalist. So it could be something that is an al-Qaida affiliate like (unintelligible), ranging over to Salafists, and then you have perhaps some others who - would more lean closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, and then you have some who are actually just secular nationalist.

CONAN: And you've talked - there is no command structure. These are people ranging from self-defense groups in cities and neighborhoods to people who carry out, you know, ambushes in the countryside, that sort of thing. We've read recently a report that in fact you mentioned the Syrian air force is dominant, of course, but that the rebels are trying to mount attacks on Syrian air force bases from the ground, and that's been - had some success.

AMOS: It has. And there's been a couple of units that are very good at it. I think that there is a big push for these units to come together to help each other in fights, to have some structure to simply make some of these attacks in Aleppo more effective. At the same time, these units are competing with each other for resources. A lot of the videos that are now showing up on YouTube are actually fundraisers, and they are appealing to wealthy Syrians in Germany, Australia, France, the United States or Saudis who will back them. And I even have in my possession a keychain from one of the brigades.


AMOS: And all of this is about branding yourself as a successful brigade inside Syria, but you need the money to buy the weapons.

CONAN: And, Andrew Tabler, we had the president of France, the new elected president of France saying if you guys will just form a provisional government we will recognize it. They have not been able to do it.

TABLER: That's right, and that's something that that is - the Syrian opposition - I've been dealing with the Syrian opposition for years, so is Deb. The Syrian opposition is divided historically. It is a result of authoritarianism, of being dominated. It's a result because the country is a mosaic of different sects and backgrounds and so on. And in - this most recently came about with the developments, the rise and perhaps the demise of the Syrian National Council, which is primarily an exiled group but includes some from within the country. They've spent most of the last 18 months arguing over - no, it wasn't 18 months to be fair, but a little bit over a year, arguing over positions and chairs.

And this is very unfortunate. It's - and in a way not surprising. There was a political struggle inside the organization between the Muslim Brotherhood, more liberal factions and Salafists. The - what we have, though, now is the situation inside the country; it's also fragmented, but it's fragmented for a different reason. It's fragmented because there if you actually I think in many ways they politically are divided. But if their Free Army had a head, if it had a vertical command structure, the Assad regime would be able to very effectively cut it off.

And so in a way, they're giving them exactly the kind of opposition they can't handle. Now, this does not mean that there's - this is part of master plan to take over Syria. I assure you it's not. And anyone - I think Deb can talk about this as well. Any kind of - anybody coming out of these meetings will assure you that this is, you know, that we really don't know what's going to happen next. And that's going to be a very important part of the struggle as the regime contracts and goes away.


AMOS: Let me make a comparison between Syria and Egypt. You know, Egypt is seen as a revolution that took 18 days. That's not really true. It took five years where you had opposition groups, like Kefaya and April 6, learning how to be opposition. But at the end of the day, when the elections came, when the president fell, it was the Muslim Brotherhood who won the elections, the most organized, that have a structure. All of those things are missing in Syria. You couldn't have an opposition inside the country because it was such a heavy-handed regime.

There was no Brotherhood on the ground that could give out humanitarian aid and help the poor. Syria is missing all of those elements. And so what you're looking at is an opposition that has had to learn under the most trying circumstances you can imagine; how to organize, how to talk to each other, had to sync politically. And all of these things, they have moved forward in almost all categories, but there is still nothing like a unified leadership.

CONAN: Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent, just back from the Syrian border in Turkey, and Andrew Tabler with us, a senior fellow in the program on Arab politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we've discussed the internal situation. That leaves the external situation. We've spoken about how Syria has allies in Hezbollah, the dominant force in Lebanon - though not the government - and in Iran, well, yeah, partly the government but...


CONAN: OK. But - and in Iran and in Russia to some degree. And certainly, Russia and China have supported Syria on the scale of the United Nations Security Council. Still, you have Mohammed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, going to the nonaligned meeting in Iran and denouncing the Syrian government, though he opposes any sort of outside intervention. You have Turkey, the former ally of Syria, now amongst its - the Assad regime's most bitter foes. And you have then the Western powers who some in Europe might like to intervene, establish a no-fly zone. The United States is highly reluctant. Where do you go from here? What happens next, if anything?

AMOS: Well, for all the complaints about Syrian opposition and how ununified they are, you have to say that so are all of the powers that are trying to solve the Syrian crisis. No two of them have the same idea about what to do. And you saw that quite clearly in the speeches that were given this week at the United Nations. There was a lot of hot air but no good ideas. And I think we don't have - there is no unified position between the Syria - between the Saudis, the Turks, the Americans. And on the other side, it is true that that the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians are more willing to step in and help Syria than those who want to undo Syria.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, do you see any prospect of change in that alignment in the next six months?

TABLER: I think diplomatically you should not look for major moves. I think what you're going to see is usually in a situation where things are confusing and governments, like people, are oftentimes very conservative. So what they're probably going to do is they're going to slowly amp up their support for the opposition in Syria. In order to do that, given the degree to which it's militarized, that's going to have to move from non-lethal assistance to lethal assistance. The question is weather, you know, many countries are already there - the Qataris, the Saudis, the Turks and also private individuals.

The question is whether the United States and the West will do that. And I think that's something that will be decided after the - and, I mean, in an overt passion, because given the kind of transition we're likely to see in Syria, given the fact that we're not going to have foreign forces probably there - and absence of some kind of major calamity - then it's probably those - if you look at everybody who opposes the regime, the armed force - the armed militants and the activists, it's - those with arms are going to be able - those who are taking the shots against the regime are going to be calling the shots, at least in the immediate aftermath. Problem is, as Deb outlined, is that everything's incredibly divided and confusing.

So - and the moment, there was going to have to be some kind of effort to reach out to those groups and to try to get them to think politically and, Deb, as she said, that these groups are thinking politically, and we're going to have to help them do that in order for them to prepare to take over in Syria after Assad's gone.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, thanks very much. Deb Amos, again, welcome home. Good to see you.

AMOS: Thank you.

CONAN: Up next, the attack of the political TV ads. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us. We want to know if you've noticed anything different in 2012, ads in places you haven't seen them before, different kinds of ads. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.