Reporter's Notebook: The Agony Of Syria's Civil War

Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to provide $60 million in aid to Syrian rebels. With the country engulfed in civil war, an important battle is underway in the northwest, where rebels may soon control all of Idlib province. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports on her trip to the region.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to provide $60 million in aid to Syrian rebels. The U.S. has sent money before, but this would go directly to the Syrian opposition coalition. And while that's an important step for them, it's clear they want military supplies, and this is specifically non-lethal aid. With the country engulfed in civil war, there is an important battle underway in the northwestern part of Syria, where rebels may soon control all of Idlib province. Kelly McEvers is an NPR foreign correspondent. She's just back from a trip to Idlib and joins us now from her base in Beirut. Kelly, always nice of you to be with us.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And how important would it be if the rebels could control an entire province?

MCEVERS: Well, this is a province that borders Turkey, and it's a province that already is a kind of de facto, liberated, safe zone for the rebels and for the activists and aide workers and people who are working sort of on the opposition side to bring down this regime. If the rebels were able to take it Idlib - and that's a big if still. I mean, we're talking - they would have to take over a major army base and a couple of cities that still remain in the regime's hands. But if they were able to take it over, they would be able to sort of create this fully safe zone where they could act - they could, you know, organize and regroup more freely.

CONAN: We've seen the opposition outside of Syria, at these meetings, in places like Rome, where Secretary Kerry made this promise. Might this give them a real opportunity if there was a safe province to declare a government and move it inside Syrian territory?

MCEVERS: That's definitely one thought. And it's really crucial for the opposition at this time to be seen as a group that's helping the people inside Syria. We know there's a massive refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians now that - who have had to flee the country. But inside the country, the situation is beyond dire, Neal. I mean, we saw people living inside of ancient graves that they had dug out of the ground. It is so bad when they are displaced from their homes. There is no aid reaching these people. So if the opposition, if the politicians, you know, could come in and show that they're bringing aide and bringing help to these people, I think that would go a long way, help the people trust them more.

The problem is that even if the rebels were to control this province, the government still controls the skies. We've seen, ever since the summer, air strikes coming down on civilians, on villages and towns where, you know, there are known to be rebels. And now, what we're seeing are, you know, surface-to-surface missiles taking out entire blocks of houses in the city of Aleppo. It's thought that they might even be Scud missiles used by the Syrian government.

CONAN: And there have been ballistic missiles fired inside Syria before. This, reportedly, the first time they've been aimed at residential areas in a city the size of Aleppo.?

MCEVERS: Right. Human Rights Watch had a researcher in the city recently. They found that at least 140 people were killed, roughly half of them were children. As one, you know, rebel commander put it to The Washington Post, in an article a couple of days ago, you know, mortars and rockets take off parts of buildings. Air strikes destroy an entire building. These missiles destroy entire blocks.

CONAN: We keep hearing that the rebels are so seriously outgunned. Clearly, they don't have surface-to-surface missiles. Clearly, they don't have fighter jets or helicopters. We read a report, though, that they have received an important shipment of arms from Croatia via Jordan, and there's evidence that these machineguns and shoulder-fired rockets are making their way from the Jordanian border, all throughout the country.

MCEVERS: Right. And it's - the report was in The New York Times. And it was said that it was Saudi Arabia that was purchasing these weapons from Croatia and having them sent in, possibly, via Jordan into Syria. This is not something that I have seen on the ground, up in northern Syria, but it does makes sense. I think, for a long time, you had the West and its allies in this region - , that would be the Gulf states, particularly...states, particularly Saudi Arabia - nervous about providing weapons to the rebels, worried about the weapons falling into the wrong hands, well, namely, you know, extremist groups, more extremist Islamist groups who were also fighting on the ground. Well, I think what everyone's seen in the last few months is these Islamist groups are getting the weapons anyway, and they're gaining a lot of influence on the ground. That is something I did see on my most recent trip.

And so I think the thought now is to get some of these weapons into the more moderate and more secular rebel groups who are fighting on the ground so they can have some influence too. I think everybody's thinking about the Syria that will come next and who will be in control. And the person that is in control is usually the person who has the most guns.

CONAN: And when you said you saw that, how does it manifest itself, the influence of these Salafist groups?

MCEVERS: I was in a town called Kafr Nabl, and this is a town that, throughout the nearly two years of the Syrian uprising, has been a kind of center of non-violent, you know, secular protest. This is a town that every Friday, you know, hand-draws these posters and holds them up at their demonstrations, and these photographs and these posters appear on Facebook. They go viral. I mean, it's like the spokes-town of the revolution in some ways, really well known for this.

And all of a sudden, for the first time, this past Friday, when everybody went out to protest and talk about, you know, the future Syria, a secular, democratic state, all of a sudden, there was another protest in town, another demonstration. And who were they? It was hundreds of men wearing black headbands and carrying black banners with the phrase: there is no god but God. These were Islamists with a group Jabhat al-Nusra. This is an organization that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. It's an organization that has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Syria, and it was an organization that all of a sudden was popular. Why is it popular on the ground? It's popular because it's got the guns. It's got the fighting experience, and it's winning battles on the ground against the Syrian government. That is a very worrying trend.

CONAN: And what are relations like between those secular groups and this more radical group?

MCEVERS: It was interesting to watch it right there on the ground, sort of playing itself out. You know, the night before the demonstrations, the Islamists and the secularists kind of sat down together and said, like, look, this, you know, how are we going to do this? And the secularists said, let's have one protest. And the Islamists said, no, we want to have our own protest. And they said, well, then let's share banners and slogans. And they said, no, we want to have our own banners and slogans.

And so on the day of the protest, when it all came out, you had sort of competing banners. You know, one group saying, we, the people, want a civil democratic state. And then the Islamists say, the people want an Islamic caliphate. You know, it was kind of this argument going back and forth.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: You'll hear it, actually, in our stories coming up. But you know it was - the one thing that was interesting about it all that, yes, they were fighting with their words, but they were actually sitting down and talking about all these things. I think when this group first came into the battlefield, it was largely believed that they were foreigners, that these are Iraqis and Libyans and people, you know, jihadist fighters who were coming from outside to sort of wage the battle.

Now as more Syrians join the group, my sense is actually that they have kind of come out of the shadows. And because they're all related, you know, these are the cousins and uncles of the secularists that just, by nature, being Syrian that they're more likely to talk to each other. I'm not saying they're going to solve their problems non-violently, but it was - I did sense that there was some communication going on.

CONAN: There is also a pledge now by this, again, outside group, the opposition coalition, to actually try to form a government in exile as soon as this weekend. It's a long-time coming.

MCEVERS: Yeah. This has been going on for a while. They've talking about forming this government in exile for a long time. As we've seen with many of these different Syrian opposition groups, the political groups, the people who are based outside, they have a hard time. There's some reasons for that. I mean, it's hard for someone to say they want to claim responsibility as the leader of a group because they immediately become a target, their families become a target from the Syrian regime. But there's also just a lot of disagreement about who should lead. Should he be from the south? Should he be from the capital - he or she? Should he be a she?

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: You know, and, you know, secular, Islamist, which group - Christian minority, majority Sunni, so these are the questions that they're all hammering out. There's supposed to be a meeting in the coming ways. We've heard that that might be postponed.

CONAN: Really?

MCEVERS: Yes.

CONAN: Postponed again.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It is curious, though, that we are able to report on the inner workings of the Syrian opposition coalition. You're able to go inside. You and other reporters who are able to go inside and watch these involving discussions between the Salafists and the secularists. Yet it seems the government is, well, nobody can penetrate it. It's blocked. There's no reporting going on from Damascus.

MCEVERS: You know, no, that - there have - occasionally the government does issue visas to journalists. There's been a recent kind of rash of visas to various television networks. I think there are times throughout this conflict when the regime realizes that, you know, it's probably time to get its side of the story out and has been doing so lately.

There's also been, you know, some signal from the regime that it's willing to talk to the opposition. You know, the last time we saw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad giving a speech, he stood in front of the country and said, how could we talk to, you know, these people who are uneducated and unsophisticated? I mean, we can't negotiate when we don't have a real partner, kind of keeping with his line that, you know, this isn't a real uprising of the people. These are just terrorists who are being funded by the United States, Qatar and Israel.

Since then, we have seen some signals from the regime that they are willing to talk and most recently from his foreign minister, who was in Moscow talking to, you know, Syria's - one of Syria's main allies, the Russians. That's an interesting development. The Syrian opposition also saying they're willing to talk. Now we don't know where this is going to go next, but you do see a little sign that the regime is willing to wiggle somehow.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, just back from a visit to northern Syrian province of Idlib. She's joining us from her base in Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

I wanted to go back to something you were talking about earlier, Kelly, and that is the internally displaced, yes, we have been hearing a lot about the hundreds of thousands, some in Lebanon, where you are, others in Turkey, still more in Jordan. But what about those people displaced inside the country? It's been estimated there may be, what, one, two million of those?

MCEVERS: Those are the U.N. estimates. Recently, some Syrians went in and did their own canvassing and surveying, and they found the numbers to be much, much higher. They're talking six million, even maybe just in the north.

There are entire villages in Idlib, Neal, that are empty. I went to a city that was empty, a city that - well, 165,000 people, let's say that's a small city or a large town, however you want to call it, almost completely empty. This is a town that's located on a key highway between, you know, the capital, Damascus, and the largest city in the north, Aleppo. Rebels have wanted to control this town and the corresponding army base nearby in order to sort of cut the government supply line on this highway. But because of that fight by the rebels, the government forces just punished this town with rockets, mortals and air strikes until, literally, almost everyone was gone.

And where did they go? Well, if you can get out of the county, you do. But usually, what happens to people we've found from talking to the internally displaced and the people who go outside of the country is that you move around, probably, five, six, seven times inside the country. You try to go to relatives' house. You try to rent a basement somewhere that you feel safe. People are now ending up in the forest. Like I said, there are some people we met who are living in ancient Byzantine era graves that they've dug out with their hands so they could just be underground and be safe from these air strikes.

The situation is beyond dire and no one - there's no aid getting to these people. You thought - you hear these donor conferences where the United Nations is asking, you know, countries to pledge aid. That is just for the people outside Syria. Barely any of this aid is reaching the people inside Syria.

CONAN: The Syrian government, such as it is in Damascus, says, if you're going to distribute aid inside Syria, it has to come through us. And there was at least one shipment of aid that did go up north. Again, this was not tremendously well-received given the government's reputation among many of its own people.

MCEVERS: Exactly. I mean, this - the - it goes to United Nations which still does have a relationship with the Syrian government in Damascus. But of course, the Syrian government doesn't want to see that aid going to its enemies. And these rebel-controlled areas, one or two shipments have gone. They weren't received very well because I think the people think that this is just a, you know, that these convoys are, you know, coming directly from Damascus, basically, coming from this regime that they believe is trying to kill them in their homes. I mean, there's a complete and total lack of trust there, a real breakdown. And so, I mean, and - but this is just a couple of convoys right at the Turkish-Syrian border. Go deeper in, drive an hour inside the country from any of these border crossings that we use and you just - you wouldn't believe it, honestly, Neal.

You really wouldn't believe it, how bad it is. People living under trees and it's winter. There's mud. There's rain. There's no sanitation, and people are, you know, at this point, without food and just the most basics, kids wearing flip-flops in February because they left their home maybe in August, and they didn't bring anything with then to stay warm.

CONAN: It's just about two years since protests started. That of course, given government reaction, eventually, turned into resistance, eventually, to civil war. There is consensus, even some grudging recognition from Moscow that the Assad regime is not going to survive but tip, tip, they're still in power. There's no sign - is there any sign, let me put it that way, that their base was in the Alawite community, their base within the army, that that's cracking?

MCEVERS: That it's eroding. I think the word that we've been using for months and the word we have to still use to characterize this whole thing is stalemate. You know, we really don't have either side making any progress, and the people who are losing out are the civilians, the ones caught in the crossfire.

At this point you have seen, you know, defections from the regime, from the political side, from the military side. But some people think that that's only hardening the loyalist core of the regime. You know, the regime itself will say, you know, these are - this is sort of the chaff. We needed to get rid of them anyway.

And on the rebel side, you know, they're going to keep fighting these locals, but I just can't tell you how local they are. You know, you go to a town like the city I was describing and this army base. They've been trying to take this single base for five and a half, almost six months, and they just keep chipping away and chipping away and chipping away. You know, one day they'll move forward a few feet. And then the next day, the regime will sort of repel them backward with its superior (technical difficulty). And you just - you ask them, you know, what's this for? You know, what's the strategy here? And they say it doesn't matter what the strategy is. This base has been killing our people. We have to take it. And that's really it. There's no vision beyond that, and that sort of tells you about the conflict, I think, in a nutshell.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much. We look forward to the rest of your pieces from your reporting trip to northwestern Syria.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers joins us from her base in Beirut. Tomorrow, Congressman Lamar Smith joins TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY to talk science funding. Monday, Ari Shapiro will be here with a preview of the conclave to choose the new pope. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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