Syrian Troops Converge On Protesters In Daraa

Syrian troops in armored vehicles and tanks stormed the southern city of Daraa and opened fire Monday. Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, talks to Steve Inskeep about the crack down on protesters.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

Let's try to get a clearer picture, this morning, of what's happening inside Syria. It's the latest Arab nation to face protests against the government.

Borzou Daragahi, he is Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He's monitoring the situation from Beirut.

And Borzou, we heard, yesterday, of tanks moving into the southern city of Daraa, which has been the center of protest. What happened when those tanks arrived?

Mr. BORZOU DARAGAHI (Correspondent, Middle East, Los Angeles Times): Oh, you know, they opened fire. From what we can tell, they didn't use the tank cannons, the tank guns, but the high caliber machine guns mounted atop the tanks. It may simply be that, you know, Syria is not equipped for this kind of civil unrest. And so, you know, they don't have anti-riot units and so on, and so they're forced to rely on the armored units of the armed forces to put down this civil unrest.

INSKEEP: When security forces send in tanks to a situation like this, they're sometimes hoping to awe the crowd. Did they calm the protest? Did they control the situation at all?

Mr. DARAGAHI: Well, that's not exactly clear because the city has been so sealed off, that even people on the ground in Syria and on the outskirts of Daraa were not able to get exactly what was happening in there.

It does appear that, for now, there are no street protests. On the other hand, there's the Fridays and Saturdays have generally been the peak of the street activity. And so there may not have been a lot anyway.

INSKEEP: We should mention, Borzou, that even though we don't have a full picture of what's happening in Syria. It is believed that hundreds of people have been killed. And this has surprised some people who thought that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, was a modernizer, that he was Western-educated, that he might approach things differently.

Is he the one, as far as you can tell, who is calling the shots in this situation?

Mr. DARAGAHI: We're not exactly sure what's happening within the Syrian leadership. It appears that they are flailing a bit. On the one hand, offering what appeared to be pretty dramatic reforms, but on the other hand, using the full brunt of military power. In this particular case, we have to assume that it is President Bashar al-Assad.

Again, Syria's leadership is rather opaque. You have maybe three or four people running the whole show; Assad, his brother, his brother-in-law, maybe one or two others in the inner circle. So we have to pin the responsibility for this killing of hundreds of people on him, personally.

INSKEEP: You know, people will remember that in Egypt, when the army was sent in to quell the protests, they didn't. They said they were on the side of the protesters. Is there any sign of division in the Syrian military, as they move against the protests?

Mr. DARAGAHI: You know, this may be a decisive factor that distinguishes Syria from Tunisia and Egypt. So far, other than a few low-level defections, there has been no great rift between the domestic security forces and the army; both appear united in backing the Assad regime.

INSKEEP: Borzou Daragahi, he's a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much.

Mr. DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.

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