Defectors Attack Syrian Military Sites

Army defectors attacked the headquarters of the much-feared Syrian Air Force intelligence on Wednesday. In Morocco, meanwhile, the Arab League met to vote on formally suspending Syria from the organization for its failure to implement a peace plan.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

We head to Syria in this part of the program, where the anti-government uprising is more violent and the government is increasingly isolated. This week, more than 70 people were killed as army defectors, known as the Free Syrian Army, clashed with government soldiers. Just today, defectors attacked a major intelligence complex outside Damascus. Meantime, the League of Arab States is suspending Syria as a member nation, and France has withdrawn its ambassador.

We're going to hear two perspectives on Syria now. We start with an overview from NPR's Kelly McEvers. Foreign journalists are mostly banned from the country, so she spoke with me from Beirut.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: What we're hearing from activists and human rights groups inside Syria is that in the early hours of the morning, a group of army defectors affiliated with this Free Syrian Army attacked a complex belonging to the Air Force Intelligence Directorate with rocket-propelled grenades and with machine guns and that the clashes lasted over an hour. So far, there haven't been any reports of casualties from the Free Syrian Army side.

Now what is the Air Force Intelligence Directorate? It doesn't have much to do with the air force actually. It's actually one of the sort of hated and notorious security services in Syria that's played a large role, activists say, in repressing protesters throughout this anti-government uprising.

BLOCK: So you can see why it would be a prime target. Tell us more about the Free Syrian Army. Have they been able to launch an attack like this before?

MCEVERS: This is definitely the biggest and the boldest attack that they've launched so far. And it's the first attack that they've launched near the capital, Damascus, and on such a high-profile target. This organization is largely made up of, again, of defectors from the army. When you talk to them, they tell you stories about how they were ordered to fire on their own people and how they refused to do so. And after that, they left the army. The group is organizing itself just over the northern border of Syria, in Turkey. Its leader is based there. It claims that it has some 10,000 members. That's probably a little bit high.

But just in recent days, you've seen activity in southern Syria. You've seen this activity in the capital. And for the last couple of months, the Free Syrian Army has been launching operations in central Syria, in Homs. They claim that they're protecting, you know, unarmed protestors, but more and more, it's looking like they're on the offensive.

BLOCK: Now, Kelly, this attack from these army defectors comes as the Arab League is meeting in Morocco, ratifying its vote to suspend Syria from that organization. What does that mean? Apart from the symbolic value, what's the - what are the practical implications of that vote?

MCEVERS: What it means is that, technically, Syria can't attend Arab League meetings anymore, that it's sort of out of the club. But symbolically, it means that Syria is more and more isolated internationally and definitely in the region. Isolation from its Arab neighbors is a particular blow to the Syrian regime, which has sort of stood as a pillar of Arab nationalism, especially in the Arab League. So it won't necessarily stop the regime from committing violence, but what it can do is empower the international community to take further steps against Syria. So what it's doing is basically starting the momentum for more and more international isolation in Syria and possible regime change.

BLOCK: OK. That's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Kelly, thank you.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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