Syrian Army Faces Its Own Among Protesters

The Syrian government is continuing its brutal crackdown against protesters. For much of the past week, there have also been clashes between security forces and armed militants in the central town of Rastan and elsewhere. Most of those resisting the government with arms are thought to be defectors from the Syrian army. Host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Deb Amos from Beirut, where she has been monitoring the Syrian crisis.

AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

An update now on Syria, where the government is continuing its brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. The political standoff has taken on a new dimension. Scores of Syrian army soldiers have turned their weapons against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring events from Syria from Beirut, and she joins me on the line now.

Deb, welcome.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

CORNISH: How widespread are the clashes at this point between the armed factions?

AMOS: It's not widespread at all. In fact, as far as I can make out - by talking to army defectors - these units, if you can even call them that, are very localized. So the clashes are localized too.

We saw this week the biggest confrontation, in the seven months of this uprising, in the town of Rastan, and that's in central Syria. In Rastan, army defectors made a video. They announced that they would defend the protesters in Rastan. Last Tuesday, the Syrian army arrived to shut it all down.

They brought 200 tanks, pounding Rastan for five days and they have retaken control. That was announced yesterday by the Syrian media. The defectors lost the battle.

Now, there are groups of defectors in the nearby town of Homs. There are some in the north, near the Turkish border, and some on the outskirts of Damascus. But this is by no means a fighting force.

CORNISH: Well, then how much firepower do they really have?

AMOS: Well, first let's talk about the numbers. The free Syrian army, which now has a website, they boast of 10,000 defectors. But credible observers in Syria say the numbers are much lower. It's difficult to quit the army. For one thing, you put your family at risk. There is little support once you walk away from your unit. And what they say is that they leave with only the weapons that have been assigned them as in the army.

If they want to get resupplied - bullets, for example - they have to get those from people who are sympathetic to them inside the army. There's no supply line for these people, and no safe place for them to go.

CORNISH: Deb, Syrians who support President Assad say that if he falls, the country will spiral downward into sectarian war. Do we have any sense of which sectarian communities these army defectors may be coming from?

AMOS: Well, so far the defectors are all Sunnis and that tells you something about the makeup of the army and, in some ways, the danger to this regime.

The army command are from the minority Alawite sect, and that's the president is and Alawite, his family, much of the business elite of the country. But the Syrian army reflects the demographics of Syria. Most of the conscripts are from the Sunni majority. And so to use these soldiers to put down rebellions in majority Sunni areas, it puts enormous stress on that army.

One defector I talked to said that 50 percent of the army now supports the protesters, but it's just too difficult to defect. So I think reports about this new armed front opening up in Syria, it's really less than meets the eye.

CORNISH: Deb, lastly, I want to move on to the peaceful protests. We've seen some videos popping up in recent days about them. Who's leading that movement?

AMOS: You're seeing more videos and that is because school kids have been radicalized over the summer and they are now back at school. They have started a protest and they're putting their videos up on the Web. The leaders of this movement have emerged from the streets, they're mostly young Syrians who use the Internet to organize and they reach out to each other.

The Syrian opposition on the ground and an older generation in exile now seem to be uniting under one umbrella, and it's been after months of delay. For the first time, they have announced a unified leadership - that's today from Istanbul, Turkey. And for the first time, there's the beginning of a coherent opposition. They're going to now try to offer an alternative to the regime in Damascus.

CORNISH: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Deborah, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News.

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