Damascus Roils As Protests, Violence Continue

Syria on Friday issued a warning to other countries in the world not to recognize the newly-formed Syrian National Council. For the last seven months, protesters have been trying to force changes in the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. So far Assad has resisted change, often forcefully. NPR's Deborah Amos was given rare permission to visit the Syrian capital of Damascus this week, and updates host Audie Cornish on the state of the uprising.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Syria today issued a warning to other countries in the world not to recognize the newly-formed Syrian National Council. The group's formation was announced last week in Turkey. It consists of various members of the opposition. For the last seven months, protesters have been trying to force changes in the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. So far Assad has resisted change, often forcefully.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Damascus and joins us now. Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

CORNISH: You visited Syria early on in the uprising. What's the mood of the opposition movement now compared to that time, as well as the Syrian people in general?

AMOS: What you notice here in the capital is the cafes are full, nightlife has resumed. Damascus, central Damascus is calm. The revolt is in the suburbs. This time the activists are too afraid to meet me. I can only talk to them over the Internet, even though we're all in the same city.

I went to an opposition meeting yesterday for a news conference - they can do that openly. Some of the members though openly wept over the assassination of Mashaal Tammo. He's a Syrian Kurd. He was a political prisoner until recently. He's a prominent opposition figure. He joined that newly-formed Syrian National Council. His death marks the first assassination of an opposition leader.

Now until now, the Syrian-Kurdish minority hasn't sided publicly with the uprising. Tammo, he was the exception. His death has already sparked the largest anti-government demonstration in months among the Kurds.

CORNISH: These protests and some armed resistance have been going on for a while now. So is there any real sign that the Assad regime is weakening?

AMOS: Audie, here in Damascus, you get the sense that the Assad regime is playing for time. The army is deployed in many cities but if the army pulled out, the protests would start all over again. Hundreds of thousands would take to the streets. It's now been seven months, the economy has halted in those protest cities; people aren't working. Who can hold out the longest?

As a young activist said to me over coffee this morning, the regime is paying in money and we are paying in blood.

CORNISH: So, Deb, it seems like the level of violence the Syrian government is using against the protesters hasn't really diminished at all.

AMOS: No. In fact, the level of violence appears to be increasing according to sources here in the capital. They're certainly more targeted arrests, more torture in the prisons. This regime is relying more and more on the security services. The idea is to break this young generation.

But here's the problem: The more people who die - when your son or daughter dies on the street, it means your parents will join this uprising. But it does appear that the government has no political solution to this crisis.

When I was here back in June, there was talk about a national dialogue and elections. That seems to be on the back burner now. I talked to one young woman today who was part of that national dialogue; she's since been fired from her job for being anti-government. And she said if she if she was asked to participate today, she'd say no.

CORNISH: Deb, that's Syrian National Council, some members of the council met yesterday in Stockholm in an attempt to organize their efforts. But what are the signs that the opposition in Syria is any more unified than it's been in the past?

AMOS: I think for the first time, Syria's opposition - inside, outside and grassroots - is more unified than they've been for 40 years. But this is also a country that's had no politics for 40 years. And so, often this opposition, even if they'd come together, seems disorganized. They don't speak with one coherent voice. They sometimes attack each other. And Syrians here, when you say what about the opposition, will say, which one?

There's an older generation of dissidents here. These are men and women who've gone to jail for their political views, who have been in this fight for a long time. They are counseling these younger activists. This is a long struggle. This is going to take a long time. It's a complicated problem in Syria because of Syria's position in the region. And they are saying seven months, that's really nothing; that we have a lot more work to do.

CORNISH: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus. Thank you so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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