Bloody Standoff Continues In Syria

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The uprising in Syria is entering its seventh month, with government security forces continuing a ferocious crackdown on protesters country-wide. With no signs of compromise from either side, there are growing fears of major sectarian bloodletting. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Deborah Amos.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: The uprising in Syria has been going on for six months now and protesters took to the streets again today, marching under the slogan: We are continuing until we bring down the regime.

The movement persists despite the deaths of an estimated 2,600 people and the arrest of thousands more, and the government of Bashar al-Assad persists despite tough international sanctions and despite the fact that Syria's allies are reconsidering their support.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut, where she's monitoring this long, drawn out struggle in Syria. And Deb, what else are you hearing about what happened today in Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS: Melissa, Syrians were out on the street today. The antigovernment movement seemed intent on showing that they're still willing to take those risks at the six month mark, but there's no doubt that the numbers are smaller, there are fewer videos coming online. There's been another mass roundup of activists and army deserters.

The activists online acknowledge that this uprising will take more time and will cost more than anyone realized six months ago.

BLOCK: And Deb, we mentioned that calls from the protesters were continuing until we bring down the regime after they saw leaders fall in Tunisia and Egypt and then Libya. Clearly, their expectations would be raised. That hasn't happened.

AMOS: Melissa, the Syrian regime does have some advantages. In fact, the Assad family, in power now for 40 years, built in those advantages. For one thing, the Syrian military, and that's the force that's carried out some of the campaigns against protest movements, remain loyal to the regime and there's a reason for that.

And I called Tarek Masoud with the Kennedy School at Harvard to explain.

TAREK MASOUD: The senior military leadership is drawn from the same minority sect as Bashar al-Assad and the political leadership of that country and so that's where unseating the regime is going to be very hard.

AMOS: And hard, he says, because much of the leadership of Syria belongs to the Alawite sect, the largest religious minority in the country. Most Alawites are convinced that their future, their very survival, is in backing the regime against a protest movement that's dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Now, there have been some army defections, but that movement took a blow this week. The most senior officer to defect showed up on Syrian television last night denouncing the antigovernment movement. Activists say that he was kidnapped from a refuge in Turkey, but the point is that the Syrian regime showed that they can find these defectors and make an example of them.

BLOCK: Deb, there was more criticism of Syria today from the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey a former ally of Syria. But today, Erdogan said the Syrian regime will not survive if it continues the repression. How important is that comment from Erdogan?

AMOS: This is another inching up of the rhetoric, but Turkey has drawn the line on economic pressure. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has called on Assad to stop. Even Iran, Syria's closest ally, has spoken out against the brutality on the streets. If you watch Arabic satellite channels, Syria dominates the news. The Arab street has turned against the Syrian regime in large measure and so these leaders have to appeal to public opinion, which is what they are doing. The rhetoric inches up, but the policies stay the same.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, who's following news from Syria in Beirut. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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