Violence Rises In Syria As UN Falters

For nearly a year, Syria's government has sustained a violent crackdown against opposition protesters. The international community has struggled to agree on a unified response, and on Saturday, the latest effort to bring pressure on Syria's leaders fell apart. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Kelly McEvers, who is monitoring developments in Syria.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

For nearly a year, Syria's government has sustained a violent crackdown against opposition protesters. The international community has struggled to agree on a unified response. And yesterday, the latest effort to bring pressure on Syria's leaders fell apart. Russia and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian government for attacks against civilians.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States was, quote, "disgusted" by the double veto.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE U.S. TO U.N.: The international community must protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality. But a couple members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.

MARTIN: Coming up, we'll ask Ambassador Rice about that vote and the international community's next move to try to resolve the crisis.

First, NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring developments in Syria, where activists report some of the worst violence against protesters since the uprising began. She joins us on the line from Beirut.

Kelly, just before the Security Council vote, Syrian troops launched an offensive on the city of Homs. What more have you learned about that assault?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Well, what we know is that it started in the evening. And it was after the usual Friday protests and government troops launched a major offensive on some of the neighborhoods in Homs that have been the most fiercely against the government; neighborhoods that basically are outside of the government control. Neighborhoods where, you know, rebel forces tried to man checkpoints and protect protesters. What we know is that the government launched mortars and rockets on these neighborhoods; that it was an attack on residential areas, and that women and children were among the dead.

MARTIN: The initial death toll was reported to be around 200, even more than 200 people killed. But some have called that number into question. What's the controversy?

MCEVERS: Well, this is the problem with reporting on Syria in general: The Syrian government restricts foreign journalists from entering most of the country, especially areas like Homs which are largely against the government. So it is very difficult for us to independently verify any of the numbers that we use. So what we do instead is we rely on reputable, credible human rights organizations that document the number of dead, and match them up and corroborate those numbers and names.

What happens in recent days is that these organizations themselves, because they're aligned with the opposition, have splintered. So, you've got one group saying no, no, no, no, the number was much more than 200. You've got another saying, no, we've got exact numbers at 200. And another group saying that, look, we can only actually verify that the number of dead was about 60 in this offensive. So I mean, that's what's going on right now. You've got some bickering within the opposition groups themselves about exactly what's a verifiable number, a death toll, to use.

MARTIN: So there was this pivotal vote on the U.N. Security Council, Kelly. I imagine this came as somewhat welcomed news for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's leader?

MCEVERS: Yes, of course. State-run media said that the government welcomed the veto, welcomed the fact that international community has decided not to intervene in the domestic affairs of Syria; that the Syrian government plans to go on with the reforms that it continues to promise to make. It also, of course, called reports about this offensive in Homs completely fabricated.

The regime is also welcoming the foreign minister from Russia in the coming days. Russia has tried to put forth a plan by which the regime and the opposition would enter some kind of dialogue. But on the ground - you talk to opposition leaders - that is something they're not interested in.

MARTIN: And this vote at the U.N. Security Council must've been a blow to the opposition. Where do they go from here? What are their options?

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean they've been issued statements that basically says this veto gives the regime the license to continue killing unarmed protesters and rebels. What it means now is that the opposition is increasingly looking toward an armed rebellion as the answer. For months and months, this movement kept it peaceful. Then you did see small pockets of armed rebellions in certain places. Now, the gloves are off.

You hear people saying where can I sign up - talking about how to arm the so-called Free Syrian Army. This is the group that's working with the protesters. And you get a sense that it's going to be less about protest and more about an armed guerrilla-style uprising.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Kelly, thanks so much for talking with us.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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