2 Million Displaced Syrians Are Living 'Rough'

Syrian rebels control large sections of the country but President Assad has kept his grip on the capital Damascus. Those displaced by the uprising that began nearly two years ago have fled to rebel-held areas.

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This week, United Nations investigators offered account of people killed in Syria. They find the violence even more deadly than long-time visitors realized.

Let's meet with one of those regular visitors, NPR's Deborah Amos.

INSKEEP: She's covered that country since before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. That uprising, now a civil war, has lasted close to two years, and Deb Amos is here to talk through what she's seen and what happens next.

Deb, welcome back to the program.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, from a distance, it feels like this conflict is not changing or moving at all, but it must feel a little different every single time you cross that border into Syria.

AMOS: Every time I cross the border. What's striking this time is commerce. The rebels have control of five border posts, the Turkish border and one with Iraq. And in two occasions when I crossed the border, I was astonished by Turkish trucks, hundreds of them lined up on the border where Syrians come and pick up blankets, tents, flour - that was very different. And in one border crossing, the rebels were charging a tax.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have commerce. We have taxes, of a sort, being collected. I suppose there's not a Consumer Product Safety Commission, but it's beginning to sound like there's almost a government there.

AMOS: There are people who are beginning to set up local governments. They have offices for relief. They have offices for medicine. They have offices for security. Those things are beginning to evolve in these northern towns where the Assad government has essentially disappeared. There is also an overwhelming need to take care of the displaced. There are more than two million people now in Syria who are living rough. The international community has not moved inside Syria yet, so this is up to the rebels to care for them and these emerging local councils.

INSKEEP: These displaced people, these are from cities where there's been severe fighting, and they've just fled to rebel held areas? Is that right?

AMOS: Yes. This has been a remarkable year of violence. The death count in Syria has spiraled to about 5,000 a month. And this week, the U.N. revised their total death count to about 60,000, and 2012 has been so much violent than 2011.

INSKEEP: I don't feel like, from this distance - I mean, we've heard your amazing reporting, and our colleagues' amazing reporting, but I don't think from this distance that we have a real visceral sense of how violent this conflict has been. Even that number, 60,000, it's a shocking number, and I'm not sure that even that conveys what's going on.

AMOS: Let me try to explain it this way, because I was struck by this. I visited some schools along the border. These are refugee kids. Many of these schools are run by Syrian parents, Syrian teachers who are volunteering. And where you see the damage of this kind of violence is in the reaction of the children. One teacher told me that the kids only paint in red, and it's almost impossible for them to draw human beings without blood coming out of them. These kids have been traumatized by what has happened to them. And I want you to listen to a young woman. Her name is Rahav Tenowi(ph). She's 20 years old, and she's now a guidance counselor in the town of Antakya. And here's what she said about the way that these children think.

RAHAV TENOWI: All their dreams, to kill Bashar.

AMOS: The president of Syria.

TENOWI: Yes. Yes. Here, not all the families, but a lot of them are always teaching his children, we have to kill him.

AMOS: This is the result of this kind of violence in Syria.

INSKEEP: So you have refugees who are so determined that Bashar al-Assad should be killed that they're teaching their children. And yet, Bashar al-Assad doesn't seem to be going anywhere. You played us some tape of some weeks ago of Assad himself saying that he was made in Syria, he intends to live and die in Syria. He's not going anywhere.

AMOS: The comment comes as the international community is trying to work some sort of negotiated settlement, some way to have a transitional government. The newly formed opposition says no dice. We are not talking until Bashar al-Assad leaves.

The Russians - who are Syria's closest ally - say that they aren't necessarily supporting President Bashar al-Assad, but they cannot force him out of the country. There is serious worry about total regime collapse. Imagine loose chemical weapons, armed groups across the country. And that is why the international community is pushing so hard. But there is no light in that tunnel.

INSKEEP: Deb Amos, why has it been so much worse is Syria than in, really, any of the other countries where these uprisings have taken place?

AMOS: I think because of Syria's history and its geography. Let's talk about history first. Bashar al-Assad is using his father's playbook. When his father was president 30 years ago, there was an uprising in a town called Hama. And he leveled the town to put down the revolt. Bashar al-Assad has been brutally repressing towns that side with the rebels.

Let's also talk about Syria as a strategic lynchpin in the region. This is a country with strategic borders: Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. If there's a change in leadership in Syria from this Alawite-dominated regime to a Sunni Muslim one, that changes the balance of power across the region. This could be a historical change. And that is why international players, regional players are so wary of change in Syria.

INSKEEP: Now you talked about the possibility of chaos. Do American officials that you talk with have a clear sense of who would be in charge in Syria if Assad were to go?

AMOS: I would say the answer to that is no, which keeps them up at night, that there is no obvious leadership in Syria when and if Bashar al-Assad goes. I think it is more likely when now than if. There is not a government to step into Bashar al-Assad's place. There are local leaders. Some of them are armed.

INSKEEP: Some must worry about radical Islamists.

AMOS: This is the year that radical Islamists emerged in Syria. They were bit-players earlier this year, but they emerged as the clearest and best fighters on the battlefield. They have more arms. They have more funds than the more secular groups. The U.S. government has sanctioned one particular group, the al-Nusra Front, only making them more popular with Syrians, because they argue these people are doing the best of any group to take down the Assad regime. And so we will sleep with the devil if it takes that to get rid of this regime.

And there were protests a few weeks ago where some towns said we are all Nusra Front. And that is very new for Syria. This conflict has radicalized people.

INSKEEP: You know, that brings up another point. Some months ago, we heard a story from our colleague Kelly McEvers, who spoke with a Syrian woman who was angry at the United States for not helping more and said: We will not forget that you forgot about us. Are there no fans of the United States among the opposition?

AMOS: There was early in the revolt, because the argument that many of the protesters made is: We want what you want. We share your values. We want dignity. We want freedom. We want democracy. As this conflict has become a grinding and brutal war, many Syrians do note that American policy has done nothing to undermine the rule of Bashar al-Assad.

I have to say that it is unlikely for them to go back to friendship with the Russians and the Iranians. Remember that these revolutionaries hate the Russians and Iranians as much as they do the Americans for not helping them. But this country will have to find a path to move back into the international system, and it is more likely that it will be a Western orientation than the one that it has had for the past 40 years.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is between visits to Syria. Deborah, thanks very much for your work.

AMOS: Thank you.

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