Reporting From A Rapidly-Deteriorating Syria

NPR's Deborah Amos followed a team of U.N. observers in Syria in June before returning to Damascus, and has been reporting on the latest developments in the region. NPR's Neal Conan speaks with Amos about her experiences reporting from Damascus and what she's seen on the ground.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Yesterday, a United Nations official declared Syria in the throes of a full-scale civil war. The Syrian government express surprise and continue to blame the violence on foreign-backed terrorists. All along, most of what we know about Syria has emerged from one side or another. For the most part, journalists have not been allowed in to see for themselves. Last week, NPR's Deborah Amos crossed the border from Lebanon, and you may have heard her reports on the activities of U.N. monitors on fighting in the suburbs of Damascus and on the sense that a turning point has been reached.

If you have questions about what she's seen, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos joins us now from Damascus. And great to have you on the show, as always.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And what have you seen so far that suggests we're in a new phase in Syria?

AMOS: You know, every day, there's a new story here. I arrived last Thursday. By Friday, we had unusual activity in the capital. For the first time, there appeared to be coordinated attacks, not just in the suburbs, which has been part of this story for months, but in neighborhoods that were close to downtown, and it was pretty fierce fighting that went on for hours. When we went out on Saturday and talked to people in those neighborhoods, they said they couldn't sleep. They heard it all night long.

The next stage of this is that the government became extremely aggressive. They had held back as the U.N. monitors came into the country, but Friday, there was no holds barred. And what we've seen since last Saturday is the government in a full-out offensive in a number of cities, not here in Damascus, but outside against the city of Homs, against a place called al-Hafa, which apparently was resolved today. And U.N. monitors were prevented from moving into al-Hafa. They have been invited to go tomorrow morning. The offensive still continues in Homs, and U.N. sources tells us that this is the most aggressive they have seen the army since they've been here.

CONAN: The U.N. official, yesterday, said some areas, some neighborhoods are - some territory has been lost to insurgents.

AMOS: Indeed. I talked to some diplomats and some people inside the government who said that the army has been very unhappy with the U.N. presence here, and they wanted to be unleashed. They felt that they lost territory to the rebels because the government pulled back. Because of the U.N. mission, they are doing what they want to do, which is to try to take back this territory. Now, the pattern has been, all along, that they take it back, and the rebels seize it again, and it is likely that that will be a pattern that continues.

They have told the U.N. they need two more days in Homs to finish the rebels there. U.N. officials said to me, today, that they say to the government but you said that before, and the rebels come back. It is a tsunami that they are against. This rebel force grows by the week.

CONAN: You were watching some of the U.N. monitors in action, and indeed, when they go into a neighborhood, protests spring up under the protection of their eyes.

AMOS: We do see that. I was in a neighborhood called Maliha, and I tell you those young men on the streets were emboldened as three U.N. monitors walked through town. The army had been there the night before. This was also a town that has rebel presence. The army came in. They smashed shops. They broke windows in the mosque. It was tanks in the streets of Damascus, which is usual here. But these young men came out and were chanting even though there were soldiers down the road behind sandbagged positions. So we do see that.

And the other thing is that that the U.N. is very careful when they go into any area that they do have negotiations with the opposition. They are talking to the rebels. They are talking to the civilians who are running some of these towns that are held by the opposition. It is very tricky for them, because the government is now accusing them of talking to terrorists. That has been the government narrative all along that this is no civil war in Syria. What this is is a terrorist uprising funded from the outside, and so their job is getting harder and harder.

CONAN: You described in one of your pieces, I think on the Web, a poster at the crossing point, and it sounds like a Nazi-era poster with a Jew in the background. Do people believe the Israelis are doing this? Do people believe this is foreign-backed terrorism?

AMOS: If you are a government supporter, you, of course, believe that because you're told that ever night on Syrian television. What's been very interesting for me to listen to is that when you interview people on the street who are pro-government, they know what to say because they've heard it on Syrian TV so often. So for example, I went to a military hospital, and there you can see the casualties are increasing for the Syrian military, some 15 are killed every day here in Damascus. But there were people from some of the other hot spots.

And there was a young man from Daraa who had been shot while he was on his way to work, and I said, who shot you? And he said, foreign terrorists. And I asked him, how did he know that? And he said, well, they're different from us. I said, do they speak Arabic with a different accent? Well, he didn't have the answer to that one because that question hasn't been raised on Syrian television. So that was confusing for him. Their training is very good, he said. Better than the Syrian army, I asked? Oh, that was confusing for him because that question has not been addressed on Syrian television.

So there is an attempt to shape the narrative for those people who support the government, who are afraid of the future, who are not convinced that this opposition and this uprising is good for them. So do they believe it? Yes, they do.

CONAN: It's fair to say the other side is trying to shape the narrative too.

AMOS: That is true. I think what we are looking at is an opposition that is young, tech savvy and who have really done a remarkable job of propaganda for their own side. That every time there is an attack on any village, there are thousands of videos that emerge, and it's about civilians trapped. It is: we are running out of medical supplies. But the U.N. will tell you that when they get in some of these towns, they have list, what do you need? And they find out that they don't really need very much. They have food. They have water. They have money. And it's not just about the civilians trapped. You know, this is a fighting force here. They have joined and some say protect the peaceful protesters, but it is merged together now, this uprising. Those who began, you know, peacefully protesting and those who believe that you'll need guns to keep this revolution alive.

CONAN: As we said, it's been difficult for journalists to get in. The BBC's Middle East bureau editor, Paul Danahar, was recently in Syria. He snuck in and was traveling with the opposition, and he said it was his impression. Yes, the Syrian army is being spread pretty thin, but the opposition has a lot of difficulties too, that they're scuffling to get logistical deliveries around the country.

AMOS: They are, but there is a pretty good ratline that is coming from both Turkey and Beirut, which brings in medical supplies. And from what we can discern, you know, weapons are arriving. It's not altogether clear to me from which border, but almost everybody here, diplomats, U.N. sources, everybody says that you can see that there has been an escalation in the arms that the Free Syrian Army are using on the ground.

They I passed a burned out tank on the road in central Syria, and this was not just, you know, singed. This thing was destroyed, and that is not something that you cook up in the basement. You know, that looked like a pretty sophisticated weapon. The opposition says that the rebels have taken out more than 30 tanks.

But you can see that the Syrian army is also escalating what they used to come into a neighborhood. So they're responding to this weapons escalation. It used to be they didn't wear vest. Now, they do. It used to be that they came with a APCs. Now, they come with tanks. We have seen and the U.N. has confirmed attack helicopters because it is too dangerous for them to go in on the ground. So it's an escalation on both sides.

CONAN: Attack helicopters, yesterday, Secretary of State Clinton attacked the - bitterly criticized the Russians for, she says, sending a new shipment of attack helicopters to the Syrians. And you say it's confirmed that they are using them against neighborhoods and cities?

AMOS: They are, but these are not Russian helicopters. And if the Russians had sent them, and they say that they are not, then we will see them, or the U.N. certainly will see them. These are old helicopters from, you know, the Syrian air force, but they do use them and that has been reported. The U.N. has seen them, and so that we know that they're being used.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, of course, Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent in Damascus. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Stephen(ph), who's with us from Windham, Connecticut.

STEPHEN: Hey. Thanks to TALK OF THE NATION for taking my call. I have to agree with you. I think there has been a significant ramp up, and I would put money down that, like, Western intelligence is running black ops like the CIA, like MI-5. I mean, 30 tanks, that's a lot of tanks. What are the possibilities that we're running black operations right now? Have you heard any rumors on the streets? And if they are, will they step up their game to bring in stinger-type missiles?

AMOS: You know, I'm the kind of reporter that I need to see it before I report it, and we've seen no evidence of that so far. And stingers, boy, we have to wait until we see them being able to shoot down a helicopter. A lot of these young men who are fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and that is a loose term. There's certainly no hierarchy. There's no general at the top that's directing. Almost every town are - they're freelancers. Some of them are from the town, young men from the town that want to protect their families. In Damascus, they are from everywhere. It is not just young men from Damascus who are in the rebel force.

They do have military training here. Almost everybody has to serve in the military, so they are already trained when they switched sides. So I think that that's what you're seeing. They understand military tactics, and they are - they know that their job is to stretch the army. They've made some mistakes. They've tried to hold territory that doesn't work for them.

I'll give you an example of something that happened today in al-Haffa, which we've been reading about for the past couple of days. It's in the coastal province near Latakia. Today, that - the government announced that they had fleshed out the rebels. Sources tell us what happened is there was a negotiated end to that one where the rebels were allowed to leave, the ones who are still alive, and were allowed to cross the border into Turkey. And that's how that one ended up. Tomorrow, the U.N. monitors are invited to go into al-Haffa and see the destruction there.

STEPHEN: But you do hear rumors?

AMOS: I haven't heard rumors.

STEPHEN: Okay. That's all because it's just seems like there's such a big change, and then you hear all these leaders from the West like Holland, and even Hillary talking about weapons down in Cameron. And I would bet money they're running black ops.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, we don't gamble on these things. We like to see them for ourselves.

AMOS: Exactly.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Stephen.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Deborah Amos in Damascus. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's see if we can go next to Jeff(ph). Jeff's with us from Cleveland.

JEFF: Yes. I'd like some clarification on the last comment on helicopters. You say they're not Russian helicopters, that's fine. But the Syrians don't manufacture helicopters. Whose are they? Are they U.S.? Are they French? Are they British? Are they Chinese? I mean, those are the people who make attack helicopters.

AMOS: Remember that this country was, for years, a protege of the old Soviet Union. The Russians have been selling Syria arms for, you know, 30, 40 years. So when I say they are not Russian, what I mean is they're not new Russian. These...

JEFF: Ah, OK. Thank you for...

AMOS: These are helicopters that have been in their arsenal for a long time. They're old and they look old when you have a look at them.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. What have you seen that - you've been to Syria many times in the past. What have you seen that surprised you?

AMOS: The thing that surprises the most, Neal, is how willing people are to say whether they are anti-government on the street. When I was here last time, people who are pro were quite willing to speak up. But now, you can see debates on the street with people who are anti, and they are feeling that the tide is on their side and that has been the most interesting.

You know, there's a lot of talk about the wall of fear. And certainly, that wall of fear has been broken in outside of Damascus, where people have been demonstrating for more than a year. Damascus is the capital of security for the regime. This place is really buttoned-down because there's embassies here. There are government ministries here. So that was a surprise to me. And I spoke to people about it and I asked if this was new. And they said, yes. It's been for the past couple of months that this idea that you could be gray, you could be in the middle has really fallen away, that people really have chosen sides. Now, there's a lot of people who are anti-government who are not necessarily pro-opposition, but that has been the most surprising to me.

CONAN: And has what started out as a Syrian opposition, a protest, has it become a Sunni civil war?

AMOS: I think it depends on where you are. I had somebody say to me the other day that what we have in Syria are 500 revolutions. You will go to some cities that are calm and have nothing. You will go to some villages that protest every Friday and nobody comes and does anything about them. And you will have other places that are dead set in the middle of a civil war. They've lost family. They've moved out of their houses. They're surrounded by the army, other neighborhoods who have a huge presence of the Free Syrian Army.

And then you have Damascus. Today, life was very normal here. I was driving around the city and people were at school. At the U.N. hotel tonight, there is a reception because it's Russia Day. And it wasn't unusual security for 20 cars filled with diplomats who are coming into a hotel. You could go out and, you know, get your cell phone recharged. You can have lunch. It's odd because once somebody says civil war, anybody on the outside thinks, oh, my God. You know, you're in the middle of fighting, but you're not.

CONAN: Yet...

AMOS: It just depends on where you are.

CONAN: Yeah. People think Baghdad 2007.

AMOS: Exactly. But it is not like that here.

CONAN: Deborah, thanks very much. How did you get in, by the way?

AMOS: You know, part of the U.N. mission here is that the Syrians must open up to journalists, and it is one of the six points that they have decided to adhere to. And they turn in the list. I was told by - at the foreign ministry there's 120 of us. Now, there's, you know, Chinese and Slovenes and Czechs and Poles and Russians and one American, me.

CONAN: Deb Amos, the American reporter in Damascus. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, NPR's Tom Bowman just back from a month in Afghanistan, plus the off-Broadway show "Old Jews Telling Jokes." That's tomorrow in this hour on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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