Amid Violence, Arab League Arrives In Damascus

An advance team from the Arab League arrives in Damascus to prepare for a mission to monitor a peace plan amid continued heavy fighting in northern Syria and other parts of the country. The Syrian army is using tanks, helicopter gunships and artillery in a major operation in the Idlib province near the Turkish border. Hundreds have died in the region this week, including many army defectors. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Deborah Amos.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An Arab League team arrived in Damascus today amid international outrage over a fresh wave of killing in the northern part of Syria. There are reports of hundreds dead in an ongoing military campaign in that part of the country, and that has prompted some of the harshest criticism yet of the Syrian regime.

The French government said it was an unprecedented massacre. The White House charged that the Syrian military was mowing down its own people. Turkish officials called it a blood bath that flew in the face of an Arab League peace plan. Under intense pressure, Syria agreed to allow hundreds of observers in to monitor an increasingly violent uprising and the army's response.

NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut monitoring events in Syria, and she joins us on the line now. Welcome, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's begin with the reports of the army campaign in the north of Syria near the Turkish border. Why such a surge in violence?

AMOS: It's true that most of the reported deaths come from Idlib province and it's a mountainous region close to that border. Syrians in this part of the country joined the peaceful protests early and they've paid a very heavy price. It's one of the poorest regions in Syria. These are mainly farmers. And the army has burned their fields, killed their livestock to try to stop them.

Over time, the protests there grew and so did the number of army defectors in the area. The large number of casualties, Robert, comes from this reported massacre of army defectors. After these guys were shot, according to reports from anti-government activists, the army turned on civilians who were sheltering those defectors.

SIEGEL: Deb, is the military offensive still going on today?

AMOS: What is happening up there is security forces are sweeping through those villages, arresting young men between the ages of 15 and 45. And so, there were more reported deaths up there today. Some of that information is coming from Facebook sites.

There was one video that was posted today on YouTube and it shows about 60 dead bodies on the floor of a mosque. They're all from one village. The Syrian government has acknowledged that there was a fight up there. The state media reports that the army was fighting terrorists and extremists in the mountains.

SIEGEL: Deb, as we've noted, an advance team of Arab League monitors arrived in Damascus today. Does this escalating violence change their mission?

AMOS: You know, it's an interesting question because there seems to be some difference between the Arab League's peace plan and the plan as it was accepted by the Syrian government. What the Arab League calls for is a military withdrawal from protest cities, inspection of prisons, release of prisoners, hundreds of monitors to assure that Syria is complying.

But today, a well-respected Syrian analyst based in Damascus wrote what was a surprising piece for a Gulf newspaper and he said: Damascus understands that the mission is to prove the government narrative that the unrest is the work of armed rebels. And he quotes Syria's foreign minister to prove his point. And he goes on to say, and now I'm quoting, "The idea from the very beginning was to gain as much time as possible."

SIEGEL: Well, is it likely that these monitors can actually go to the protest areas, the cities, and actually see what's going on with the army pullout and permit them to do that?

AMOS: That is what the Arab League is supposed to be doing. Now, there are some veteran human rights campaigners on this monitoring group. One of them, Wissam Tarif, is here in Beirut. And he said they written to the head of the Arab League and said we must have our own security. We have to be able to go where we want to go, not where the Syrians want us to go. I have been into Damascus, and you don't get to go wherever you want to go. They do claim that security and safety is a problem. They may try the same thing with these monitors. So the question is, will people stand up and say this mission is a failure?

SIEGEL: OK. Deb Amos, speaking to us from Beirut about what's going on in neighboring Syria. Thanks, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you, Robert.

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