In Syrian City Of Homs, 'Utter Destruction'

Many months ago, Homs, Syria, was the scene of intense clashes between government and rebel fighters. Melissa Block speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about the ongoing battle between Bashar Assad's Syrian army and rebel groups.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with news out of Syria. President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview today that Russia has made good on some of its longstanding weapons contracts, though he did not say what kind of weapons had recently been provided. Assad also said he agreed in principle with the idea of sending negotiators to peace talks with the opposition.

BLOCK: In the meantime, the war in Syria grinds on. We're going to hear from two of our correspondents now. First, I spoke with MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep, who's reporting from Syria this week and today visited the city of Homs. It's been the scene of intense battles between government and rebel fighters.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What we found in some areas of Homs was utter destruction, a very famous neighborhood called Baba Amr. It is just miles of devastation. Now, once you get into the neighborhood, you discover that perhaps in some areas it's not so bad. We actually encountered people who were beginning to return home, getting a look at their houses to see if their houses still even existed.

There are other areas that are still in rebel hands, and night after night you hear loud explosions here. Mortar shells may fly over your head. Rockets will suddenly smash into shopping streets. We saw that happen a couple of nights ago in Homs. It is a very unsettled place.

BLOCK: By and large, would you say that government forces, though, have wrested control of most of Homs, if not all?

INSKEEP: Well, let's think about that for a moment. We went and visited the governor of Homs. He's in an alternative office on the edge of the city because the original governor's office was taken by the rebels for a time and is not in any condition where they can use it. There's still a large part of the city - it's hard to say exactly how much - that is in rebel hands.

There are other parts of the city that are in government hands, but even the authorities are reluctant to go there. Sometimes when we've been reporting on the Syrian side, we've been able to move very freely. Sometimes they put a person with us for our security, it is said, and some of these security people have been very reluctant to take us to certain parts of the city. They're concerned about our safety, they say, and they appear, apparently, to be concerned about their own.

BLOCK: I wonder, to the extent that people have been willing to talk with you, whether they're expressing a sense that the momentum has shifted in favor of the government, that the government now has the upper hand, is regaining territory and effectively crushing the rebel movement, or is that what you're hearing?

INSKEEP: You know, Melissa, that's what we heard from analysts before we came, a sense that the rebels have lost ground, that the government is gaining ground. But that's not necessarily what we have heard from the populace, even Assad supporters. People will say, we will win. They're not cheering that they feel that they are winning right now.

I would say that the largest single sentiment that I've heard from a variety of different people that we've been able to talk with is simply peace. They would like this war to be over.

BLOCK: Do you hear people, Steve, talking at all about a successful diplomatic solution, which is the international focus right now, or do people assume that this is going to be resolved in Syria on the ground militarily?

INSKEEP: You know, what I've heard from a lot of people is a hope that there can be a negotiated solution, that there can be peace for the country to go back to the way that it was. That is at least what we hear on the government side of the battle lines. There's some hope for some kind of negotiated solution.

However, there's a problem there, really, because the United States and its allies presume that this negotiation is a negotiation to find the terms under which President Assad is replaced. Of course the Assad administration, they presume that this negotiation is about somehow reconciling with the rebels, but keeping the president in place. That may prove to be an irreconcilable difference, and right now what you hear from the people is simply a general hope for peace.

BLOCK: I gather, Steve, that you also tried to get to the town of Qusair. This is the area that's being seriously fought over right on the Lebanese border. Didn't make it, though? What did you see?

INSKEEP: Yeah. The governor of that province told us that he thought that the city of Qusair was under government control, that the airport was still being fought over, but that the government had the city. We naturally has to see that for ourselves.

He made arrangements for us with an escort to go through a number of military checkpoints. It was, to me, a fascinating ride. We took a very roundabout route through Alawite villages, that minority group to which President Assad belongs, because our security men were not so sure of the Sunni villages along the way and the safety of them.

We did see a relentless government bombardment of the airport area. You could see a lot of explosions and smoke going up even from a distance. And we also saw smoke going up, signs of fighting inside the city of Qusair itself. So at least on Wednesday, it did not appear the fight was over in Qusair.

But with that said, Melissa, there have been spokesmen for both the government and for the rebels, who have acknowledged that a large part, perhaps the greater part of that city is under government control.

BLOCK: That's NPR's MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep, reporting all this week from Syria. Steve, thanks so much. Stay safe.

INSKEEP: Delighted to do it, Melissa. Thanks.

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