Record Number Of Syrians Fled Country In August

Activist groups are reporting that more than 5,000 people died in Syria in the month of August. Along with the death toll, the number of Syrians fleeing their country is also on the rise. Melissa Block talks to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, about the bigger picture in Syria and what happens next.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The United Nations' refugee agency calls it an astonishing number. More than 100,000 Syrians sought refugee status in August alone. That one month accounts for more than 40 percent of those who've fled Syria in the 17 months since the uprising began. And that doesn't begin to count those who've fled and haven't registered with authorities.

The refugee number is one of many that point to a dramatically escalating war in Syria, a conflict that's being followed closely by Joshua Landis. He directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Joshua Landis, welcome back to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being with you.

BLOCK: Along with that spike in refugees fleeing Syria that we just mentioned, we're also seeing a really sharp rise in the death toll. According to opposition groups, there are about 5,000 people killed in August alone. UNICEF says 1,600 people were killed just last week. The caution being that these numbers are impossible to verify, but they do show an alarming trend. What do you think accounts for that steep rise?

LANDIS: Well, two things. One is the opposition is getting stronger every week. It's getting much better weapons that have been coming in with Gulf money. So it's getting RPGs, a lot of grenades and grenade launchers.

BLOCK: RPGs are rocket-propelled grenades.

LANDIS: Yes, indeed. And also, of course, the Syrian military is using airpower in a much broader and more indiscriminate way than it had been. The Syrian army remains very strong. Even though it's losing ground, it has strong backing in Iran and Russia, and its got a command and control, which is what the opposition - although it has numbers, the opposition, and it has a lot of international support, it does not have good command and control. And it doesn't have the kind of weaponry that the Syrian army has.

BLOCK: How resilient would you say the Syrian army is? How much can it take?

LANDIS: It can take a lot. This is the problem, is that the Syrian army is transforming itself. As the Sunni Arabs defect from the army, and increasingly, the Sunni elements in the army are not trusted, the army has been remaking itself as an Alawite militia, increasingly. And we're seeing this war devolve into a civil war between Alawites, the Shiite heterodox group - 12 percent of Syrians - and the Syrian Sunni Arabs who are 70 percent of the population roughly. And that's why things are becoming increasingly more brutal, but it's also why the Syrian army will not likely give up.

If they were to give up, the leadership in the army will be killed. And many Alawites believe that they would be marginalized in society as the Sunni Arabs take over. So they're fighting a very brutal war, and it's hard to see how this comes to an end anytime soon.

BLOCK: When you look at the Syrian opposition, as fragmented as it may be, how much territory do they control now? And are you seeing them expand their reach around the country?

LANDIS: They are expanding their reach. The big swathes of territory that they do control our up near Idlib, the Turkish border, stretching from Idlib all the way over towards northern Aleppo. Then there are Kurds who've taken over the northeast of Syria. But the rebels have also extended their control, at least for moments, within the heart of the cities. And that has changed in the last month, and it's one of the reasons for the rising death rate.

Because the urban centers, Damascus and Aleppo, which had been denied to the rebels for such a long time, have now become part of the battleground. And the rebels have shown their ability to strike into the very heart of both of Syria's big, major urban centers. And it's not just a rural battle. It's now a battle everywhere in Syria.

BLOCK: But does that amount to a turning point in any way?

LANDIS: Well, at first, everybody thought it would be the turning point. But the government has retaken both those cities. And I just was on the phone today with friends in Beirut, a Christian family that had left Aleppo to Beirut, and they are thinking of going home. They were talking about wanting to go back. And the government of Syria is saying they're going to open schools soon, and these people are clinging to hope that somehow, they could return to their previous comfortable lives. And they wanted to enroll their kids in schools in Aleppo.

You know, that's the way the battle is shifting back and forth. One minute, they're fleeing, and the next minute they're thinking of they can go back and resume their old lives, that maybe things will go back to the way they were.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Joshua Landis. He directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Landis, thanks so much.

LANDIS: A pleasure.

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