Eight Months In, Violence In Syria Continues

Guests

Kelly McEvers, foreign correspondent, NPR
Ramita Navai, reporter, Frontline's "Syria Undercover"
Rami Khouri, director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut

The U.N. says more than 3,500 people have died in Syria's eight-month cycle of protests and government crackdowns. Residents of Homs, the third largest city in the country, report fierce fighting as government forces try to regain control of the city.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After eight months, the anti-government uprising in Syria may be reaching a watershed. Syrian security forces are reported to be engaged in a long and bloody effort to regain control of the city of Homs, one of the centers of protest.

More and more attacks are reported on government troops there and elsewhere, and as the United Nations reports that the death toll has now passed 3,500, the Arab League and Turkey face the prospect that yet another promise to end the crackdown will prove empty.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with "Frontline" reporter Ramita Navai, who spent time undercover in Syria to document the evolution of the anti-government movement, and get the latest on what we know about the battle in Homs.

How does this end? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Bert Sugar on the life and famous fights of Joe Frazier. But first, NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers joins us by phone from Beirut, and nice to have you with us today.

KELLY MCEVERS: Hi.

CONAN: And what's the latest news coming out of Homs?

MCEVERS: Well, what we know is that government troops are basically going door-to-door in Homs. It's the sixth day of a siege there. They're searching out protesters and army defectors who claim to be protecting the protesters. It's a bloody offensive. They're using tanks, shelling residential homes. Women and children have died. In the six days, we know at least more than 100 people have died.

CONAN: And what do we know of what kind of resistance they're meeting?

MCEVERS: Well, I mean, Homs is the place where the protest movement has turned into something else. You have people in the army who have refused to shoot on their own and who have defected, as they call it, to the protesters' side. They have taken up arms.

A video emerged a couple of days ago of a group calling themselves the Farouk Brigade. It looked like, you know, rebels in Benghazi, Libya. It was the first time you'd seen anything like this in Syria, holding guns, saying that they're going to defend the protesters but also holding olive branches and promising that if the government stops its offensive on civilians that they would put down their arms.

CONAN: And this after the government promised to withdraw forces from the cities, this a promise to the Arab League.

MCEVERS: Right, this was a promise they made to the Arab League and made sort of a big production about announcing in the past week, saying - last week, saying that they would, yes, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of the cities, that they would release political prisoners and that they would allow monitors and journalists into the country and after that that they would begin a dialogue with the opposition.

It's clear now to everyone involved that they have completely reneged on this promise.

CONAN: Though they did say 500 prisoners were released.

MCEVERS: They did do that on the occasion of Eid-al-Adha, the Muslim feast. That's a small fraction of the tens of thousands who activists and human rights groups say have been detained since the uprising began.

CONAN: And as this continues, we see reports not just from Homs but from elsewhere in the country as well, that there is a small but steady level of attacks on Syrian government forces, ambushes of the style you might see in Afghanistan or Iraq.

MCEVERS: You are seeing that, there's no question. There's a group again forming that's calling itself the Syrian Free Army. Its leader is reportedly in Turkey, you know, crossed over into the refugee camps there earlier in the conflict. They are - you know, they are armed, and they do claim that they're just defending the protesters.

But as this conflict drags on, it's starting to look a little bit more like a war and less like a peaceful movement.

CONAN: There is also some developments on Syria's border. There have been reports that several opposition figures from Syria were arrested by Syrian agents in Lebanon and spirited back across the border.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean, arrested is little bit more an official term than you might want to use. I mean, some people are just frankly disappearing. Here in Lebanon where I am right now, you had an 89-year-old man who was once the vice president of Syria back in the '60s, who broke with the regime of Hafez al-Assad, who's the father of the current president. And, you know, for - was a figure in the opposition, the Syrian opposition, but hasn't really been politically active for years.

A few months back, he was walking outside of his daughter's house and was just snatched and taken, and now they believe he is being held in a Syrian prison.

CONAN: And we see reports that Syrian forces are laying landmines along the Lebanese border, their side of the Lebanese border, to cut down on the number of those military defectors and others crossing the border.

MCEVERS: Yeah, you do see, we have seen reports of that that have been confirmed here in Lebanon. The issue with Lebanon, I mean, it's probably the weakest state that borders Syria. Syria, for 15 years, Syrian forces occupied this country after the end of the Lebanese civil war and only pulled out of here in 2005. So there are a lot of ties between the security forces of the two countries, between different political factions here in Lebanon and in Syrian.

You know, Hezbollah, which has become a major political player, you know, once a militant organization, now a political player in Lebanon obviously has strong ties to the Syrian regime. So there's a sense that as much as Syria's trying to sort of play dirty, in several countries, that it can really get away with it most here in Lebanon.

CONAN: It's interesting you describe Lebanon as the weakest country on Syria's frontier when another of its neighbors is Iraq. But there is a strong neighbor to the north, and that is Turkey, up until a few months ago an important Syrian ally and now looking more and more like somebody - a state that is aligning itself in opposition to Bashar al-Assad.

MCEVERS: Right, you know, the prime minister, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, you know, was thought to be really close to Assad at one point. I mean, the two were said to have vacationed together. I think it was the real hope of Turkey's allies, particularly the U.S., that he would have some sway with Assad earlier in this uprising, that he could sit down and talk to him, talk about, you know, how to sort of reasonably end this conflict.

And at one point in the summer, you know, Assad made some assurances: Yes, we'll stop the violence. We'll start a dialogue with the opposition. And yet again, and it was right around the time of Ramadan, you know, the previous Muslim holiday, went into another city that has known protests and crushed it with tanks and guns, just as it's doing now.

So, I mean, we're seeing a pattern here of sort of promise an international partner that, you know, they're willing to reform, but yet, you know, days afterward continue to brutally repress civilians.

CONAN: There has been the formation of the Syrian National Council, a sort of umbrella organization for opposition groups. That has found a home in Turkey. You mentioned the Syrian Free Army. That has also found a home inside Turkey.

MCEVERS: Right, you know, Istanbul has hosted many conferences for the Syrian National Congress. The Syrian opposition has had a lot of problems uniting itself, getting its act together, basically figuring out who it is, who's its leader, who should be part of the group. And I think Turkey's tried to help that, I think, sending a message to Assad that, you know, we are your strong neighbor to the north, and we can help groups that oppose you in certain ways.

The problem with the opposition is that, you know, the questions still remain who exactly is the Syrian opposition. I think nowadays if you were to come forward and say that you're in the Syrian opposition, there's still a really strong chance that back in Syria that troops could storm into your house and arrest your mother and your sons.

So there's still quite a bit of fear for - on the part of many Syrians in the opposition to even come forward. And then yet with the outsiders, the sort of Syrians in exile in places like Paris and London and even the U.S. that they take over, then you've got the protest movement inside Syria saying wait, they're not really the real opposition. So it's a really difficult time for the opposition in Syria.

CONAN: But should we take pause when the Syrian free army is reportedly based in a refugee camp on the Turkish side of the frontier? Turkey, of course, is a NATO ally. If - is that force being used to launch cross-border attacks?

MCEVERS: You know, I'm not sure that we've seen a whole lot of reports of cross-border attacks. I think what's happening in the camps there, from the reports that I've seen, is that you have sort of organizing, and there's, you know, quite a bit of media appearances, but the attacks that are happening are attacks in places like Homs, inside places like Idlib, which is near Homs, not far from the Turkish border. But they're internal attacks, generally, again aimed at government forces that are coming to attack protesters.

CONAN: So any idea when the situation in Homs will resolve one way or another?

MCEVERS: It's really hard to say at this point. I mean, Syrian state media, you know, if you were to watch only Syrian state media today, you would see that the government troops have been victorious and that, you know, the conflict is over and that they have retaken the sort of, you know, the rebel city of Homs.

Talking to residents and activists, we hear a different story. People are still heading out in different neighborhoods, trying to launch protests, and defectors, they say, are still, you know, defending the people.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much for your time, we appreciate it.

MCEVERS: Yeah, you're welcome.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, with us on the line from Beirut. Here in Studio 3A is Ramita Navai, a reporter for "Frontline," also a reporter for Britain's Channel 4, their foreign affairs series "Under-reported World." A piece she did called "Syria Undercover," is broadcast starting tonight on PBS on the "Frontline" series, and it's good of you to be with us today.

RAMITA NAVAI: Thank you.

CONAN: And you were in Syria undercover, starting in September, and saw some of these changes as the protest movement began to evolve.

NAVAI: Yes, the protest movement was actually very much in place when I was there. I got back about five weeks ago. Nearly every point that your correspondent just covered for us I witnessed, apart from the shelling.

CONAN: The shelling from tanks and the attacks...

NAVAI: Yeah, I didn't go to Homs, but I left Damascus. So I went to a town northwest of Damascus called Madaya, and in that town, there were violent house-to-house raids and searches, just as your correspondent described. And we went to towns north of Damascus, in Rif Dimashq.

CONAN: In that town you were just mentioning, you were in one of those houses as the house next door was broken into, and the people were rousted out.

NAVAI: Yeah, so what happened is shortly after we arrived in this town, lookouts told the activists we were with that the military was entering the town, which means that there were going to be raids. The activists just fled. We were at a meeting with about 15 of them. They fled, dragged us with them, ran into a safe house, and we were essentially trapped there for three days.

For three days they wouldn't talk above a whisper. And news was coming in of raids in the neighborhood. They were getting closer and closer. Finally on the third day, the news that we were all dreading, that militia men were going to be raiding our street.

CONAN: We're talking about the cycle of protest and violent crackdown in Syria and the evolution of the protest movement there. More with Ramita Navai about her "Frontline" report when we come back. We'll also talk with Rami Khouri of Beirut's Daily Star about the broader situation with Syria. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Despite an agreement brokered by the Arab League and growing international pressure, the violence in Syria continues to grow. Thousands of anti-government activists are dead. The government militias are now engaged in an assault on the key city of Homs, the third largest in the country.

Western reporters are not allowed in to document the fighting. Ramita Navai is here with us in Studio 3A. She went in for a report that you'll see tonight on PBS' "Frontline" program "Undercover." We want to hear from you, as well. How does this end? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Ramita Navai, we'll get to calls in just a moment, but you went in on a tourist visa, could not disclose that you were a reporter?

NAVAI: No, so most independent foreign media was banned when we went in there. We were really lucky to get 15-day tourist visas, and we had to operate below the radar, always making sure that we weren't being followed and monitored.

CONAN: And it sounds like obviously you made contacts with some of the organizers. We talk of the protest movement, and you met with some of the organizers. How organized are they? Are they interconnected? Do they talk with each other? Are there means of communication?

NAVAI: Well, there are many different opposition groups, but once you're on the ground, what's remarkable is that they're all quite unified in helping each other on the ground. So there's this network of protestors and opposition activists that spreads the whole country. And they're always sharing information with each other about the movements of the security forces, the latest information on how to keep safe.

CONAN: And this information flows back and forth. You also visited underground hospitals. It's become dangerous for those injured, and there are of course thousands of those, dangerous for them injured in protest to be treated in regular hospitals. Doctors go to these secret hospitals, facilities, to treat people there and say that all kinds of medical equipment is being brought in across the borders from, primarily you said, Jordan and Lebanon.

NAVAI: Yeah, this is one of the most depressing parts of covering this story, actually, that nobody is safe, not even in hospitals. You're not safe anywhere. And so a doctor that we spoke to said he say with his own eyes dozens of injured protestors dragged out of their hospital beds, and he said that some of them had superficial injuries, and it would be a familiar pattern. They'd be arrested, dragged away. A few weeks later, their dead bodies would be delivered to their families.

So yeah, people are too scared to take injured to hospitals, and they're all being treated in people's back rooms and safe houses.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. We'll start with James(ph), James with us from Boston.

JAMES: Yes, hi. Thank you so much for covering this. It's a story that's under-reported. I'm actually a journalist covering this story for a website call EA Worldview. And, you know, some of the things we've noticed is that this is not a sustainable campaign that Assad is waging. And, you know, what we haven't seen yet is we haven't seen large-scale political defection.

But those who have defected have talked about the fact that there are many others who are willing to defect who are beginning to question whether or not Assad can survive this. And, you know, the economic impact is just incredible on the country. And it's really only a matter of time before the defectors or before more leaders decide to jump ship on Assad.

CONAN: Would you agree, Ramita Navai?

NAVAI: Let's hope so. I would like to agree. I think it's really hard to figure out what's going to happen next. I think if you look at Saddam, he lived in isolation for, God, 10 years. He endured sanctions. I think that, at the moment, Assad believes that he can do the same. I think he's buying time with the Arab League, he's trying to ride this one out.

I think there - just as exactly as the caller is saying, there haven't been enough important defections, military and political. So that really might be the tipping point. Whether that will happen, we don't know. Especially with military defections, what's important is arms, like Libya, for there to be a rebel group. And as the caller says, the economy is all but at a stand-still. So arms are really expensive.

It's hard to get arms, and I think they're the questions that we'll have to see what plays out to be answered first.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Omar(ph), and Omar is with us from Columbus.

OMAR: Yes, I think what we need to do in Syria is the same as what we did in Libya. We need a military intervention, and that's the only way we can solve the problem there because there's no way we can solve it politically, you know, that political agreement or any kind of peace agreement.

The regime in Syria is one of the most brutal regimes in the world. It's actually worse than the Libyan - the previous Libyan regime.

CONAN: Well, you could get into a long conversation about who was worse to whom. But in any case, three-and-a-half thousand people dead by U.N. standards, more than had been killed in Libya before intervention there. But the political circumstances and the strategic circumstances of Syria, Ramita Navai, very different?

NAVAI: Absolutely, and interestingly, most of the activists that we spoke to on the ground don't want military intervention. They're scared of military intervention, and as you say, politically very different. So Assad can cause all sorts of trouble in Iraq. Of course one of the closest allies is Iran, and he really has got a lot of influence with Hezbollah, along with Iran, naturally, and with Shiite groups all over the Middle East.

He himself threatened this can be many, many Afghanistans, you know, if you meddle with our affairs. I think what needs to be done is that Western countries can put pressure on the Arab League because the Arab League wants to sort this out itself. It wants to keep it within the Arab nations, but it's totally ineffective.

CONAN: Joining us now by Skype from Beirut, is Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut, also a syndicated columnist at Lebanon's Daily Star. And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you.

CONAN: And let's begin right there with the Arab League. If, as we now expect, the Syrian promises to the Arab League turn out to be empty, what's the reaction likely to be?

KHOURI: Well, the Arab League has had a very spotty and mixed record of effectively intervening in any kind of conflict in the Arab world to resolve it. And I think we'll probably see the same here. The fact that they took the initiative is surprising, and it may be the early birth pangs of a new Arab League. We may not have a new Arab world totally, but we may have a new Arab League that is acting more decisively to at least try to play a mediating role in conflicts that are within individual countries or between Arab countries.

But the likelihood is that the Arab League won't get very far because it does, in fact, represent the Arab governments, and the Arab governments are not all of the same mind. But the trend is increasing in terms of putting more pressure on the Syrians as increasing frustration and anger with what's going on in Syria around the Arab world.

And as you get more Arab governments that are more democratic and more responsive to their people's wishes, you will start to see Arab governments take positions that actually reflect public opinion, and public opinion in the Arab world is moving quite critically against the Syrian situation. So I think this is a trend that will probably continue, and the Arab League will play a minor role in the end, but it could play a catalytic role, which is start a diplomatic process, as is happening now, perhaps.

CONAN: And the other key neighbor of Syria is Turkey, which as we said earlier is becoming, well, more and more involved with the opposition.

KHOURI: Well, Turkey is in a complicated position because it has, first of all, much more respect and clout around the region because of its recent policies in the last, say, five, seven years. It has a lot more impact. People take it more seriously. It has tried to develop good relations with everybody in the region and to a large extent has done that.

But when it comes to Syria, the problem is there is you get two countervailing pressures. The Turks don't want to get too heavily involved in Syria because if they do appear to the Syrians to be ganging up on Syria, then the Syrians always have the card to play which is the Kurds, and the Kurdish situation in Turkey is delicate and keeps flaring up.

There's recently been a bout of fighting with major Turkish military operations in Turkey and partly in Northern Iraq in some cases, and the Syrians could get involved with that, too. So there's a very delicate relationship there. I don't think the Turks are going to overtly sponsor military action against Syria, but I think what they're doing is making clear that they can play a bigger role if they want.

And that role can be positive or negative. They can apply pressure, or they can produce diplomatic breakthroughs, possibly. They tried that with Iran, with the Brazilians. The Turks and the Brazilians took a major initiative with Iran. So the Turks have a special credibility in the region that they could also possibly bring to bear.

But they tried and failed. So this is a dilemma that everybody's facing, that every time that somebody gets a promise from the Syrian government, that promise doesn't seem to get fulfilled. So people are slightly bewildered about to do next.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Raymond's(ph) on the line with us from Miami Beach.

RAYMOND: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RAYMOND: I think you laid out the question to your guests that what is the way out for this Syrian problem. And I think that probably a choking of the regime through the sanctions and other means by the West, and maybe also by the Arab League, and also maybe provide a way out for them because otherwise they'll become suicidal, and they just killing everybody if they know...

CONAN: A way out that does not involve the International Court in The Hague, is what you're suggesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAYMOND: Well, yeah, which is hardly likely but at least, you know, try that because the other option, which would be a military intervention, has been jeopardized by the Russians and the Chinese intervention on behalf of the Syrians. And therefore if you're going to go by sea, for instance, and do something like that and the Russians might supply the Syrians with arms, and then, it will become another mess over there. That's my comment.

CONAN: Already a mess but thank you very much, Raymond. How - Ramita Navai, from your experience, how deeply are the sanctions biting?

NAVAI: Well, from my experience, sanctions aren't always very effective. Iran coped very well with sanctions. Saddam coped very well for years with sanctions. So sanctions alone won't do it, but it will be a mixture of diplomatic pressure. It will also really heavily depend on, as we saw in Libya, armed groups, a rebel army arming themselves. And also if a rebel army can form, then the West may decide to back them. But at the moment, it's too dispersed. There's isn't a main group of people that the West can say, right, we're going to arm you.

CONAN: There's no place a rebel army holds no piece of land where they can organize, train and say this is the nascent part of a new Syria, of a free Syria.

NAVAI: Absolutely. That's a really important point. There's no Benghazi. There is no place at the moment - there's no place that's safe for activists. And this is something that your correspondent brought up as well, that in Syria you cannot say I'm an activist. There's no way you can hide.

CONAN: Ramita Navai, a Frontline reporter, also a reporter for Channel 4 in Britain. Her piece the "Syria Undercover" airs tonight on Frontline, on many PBS stations. Also with us is Rami Khouri of the Daily Star in Beirut and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Rami Khouri, the other development that we've been talking about is the evolution of the protest movement from protest to resistance as more weapons become involved, as that Free Syrian Army formed by defectors begins to form. How does that change the equation?

RAMI KHOURI AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN BEIRUT: Well, it could, and this revolution has been going on for about four, five months, and it will continue to. There are several different groups in Syria that could possibly be using arms. One, is the defecting military, which is - these are small numbers, but they're enough apparently to use their arms on someplace. You could have some of the defectors, the civilian demonstrators who've just been enraged by the death of members of their families, and the tanks attacking their city centers and may have taken up arms in small numbers.

And you have a third group, which is foreign Salafi, you know, militant Islamist fighters who are out to get the Syrian regime because the Syrian regime hit them hard in Hama 25 years or 30 years ago, whenever it was in the 1980s. And the - so there's different groups that could possibly be using arms, not just one group. But the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators keep saying that they're peaceful and they want change. But the fascinating development, I think, is we've seen that the - at the beginning of this process in March, when I was in Syria in April, they - the demonstrators were calling for (foreign language spoken), which means reform of the regime.

They wanted political reform. They weren't asking the president or the regime to step down. Then four, five months later, they started calling for the - they wanted the regime to go. Then, they started calling for the - putting the president on trial. And the latest demand just in the last few days within Hama and Homs with the accelerated government crackdowns that the protesters are asking for protection. They're saying we want international protection, which might be a step towards a different kind of international involvement.

How that protection might come, we don't know. But the demonstrators are calling for it, or some of them are. And this could provide a new direction in which this movement would go. It's a big dilemma for the international community, of people who want to pressure Syria and stop this fighting and get a reform process moving. It's a big dilemma for them to figure out what they actually do. The sanctions by themselves will continue to the will of the foundation of the regime economically, but that will take another four, five months to really show up in a big way.

But we know that there's massive economic stress in the country from business people and others who come and go. So there is a vulnerability there. And it's possible that economic pressure after three, four months will cause some of the pillars of the regime to actually finally break away and give up. That may be business people, maybe some of the minorities, some of the Alawites, some of the security people. It's hard to tell.

CONAN: Ramita Navai, we'll give you the last word.

NAVAI: Yeah. Absolutely, this was a peaceful uprising. I never saw an armed protester, and I saw thousands on the streets protesting. But it's definitely changing. I spoke to activists yesterday. I'm still in touch with them all. And they're arming themselves. They really are. They're trying to get weapons, but, of course, weapons are expensive. But they say this is the only way that they can survive, the only way they can defend themselves.

CONAN: And that appeal that Rami Khouri was just talking about for intervention is that something that's coming up?

NAVAI: Absolutely. They've been saying this for a while now. They hold up banners saying international protection when you're there. So there's growing support for a no-fly zone, for example. They're still very scared of military intervention. So at the moment, it's soft intervention that they're looking for.

CONAN: Soft intervention of the sort that, well, in only six months or so ended the regime of Colonel Gadhafi in Libya, or it helped with the - obviously, the Libyan rebels. Ramita Navai, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Her piece "Syria Undercover" premieres tonight on many PBS stations as part of the Frontline series. Rami Khouri, as always, good to talk to you.

BEIRUT: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University in Beirut and an editor at large at Beirut's Daily Star.

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