2 Syrian Rebels Share Their Stories

U.S. and European officials meet on Saturday to decide how to increase their aid to the rebels in Syria. The U.S. is deepening its involvement in Syria's Civil War. Steve Inskeep, who recently was in Syria reporting for Morning Edition, has the story of two rebels.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The nations that make up what's known as the Friends of Syria meet tomorrow. American, European and other diplomats gather in Doha, by the Persian Gulf. They're deciding how to increase their aid to Syria's rebels. The U.S. is deepening its involvement in that country's civil war. And this morning, we'll hear from two men fighting against Syria's government.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We were reporting from Damascus a few weeks ago, when we drove past an area the government was steadily shelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHELLING IN BACKGROUND)

INSKEEP: We are passing mile after mile of rubble - buildings that have been half-destroyed, entirely destroyed; houses with holes punched into them.

The suburb we passed was called Douma, and the government described it as full of terrorists. Before the war, it might have resembled a suburb you'd know - a highway, lined with auto dealerships and housing somewhere behind. Now, Syria's army was bombarding Douma from a mountainside on the edge of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUFFLED EXPLOSION)

INSKEEP: Sometime later, in another location, we met two of Douma's rebels, who were temporarily outside their town. The view, and the sounds, were very different in the place we met. We spoke in a walled garden. Branches and vines stretched over our heads. We sat on plastic chairs, and one of the men brought coffee on a tray. We heard birds - and children playing somewhere out of sight.

And we put some questions to these men. One man was middle-aged. He said he aided rebel fighters by slipping supplies into Douma. The other man was in his 20s. He worked by day as a shopkeeper, and said he also rotated in and out of the Free Syrian Army.

And what is your role?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I'm a fighter, he said, and made a trigger-pulling motion.

What kind of weapons do you have?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Russian Kalashnikov.

INSKEEP: A Kalashnikov assault rifle, the nearly universal weapon of rebels and militias around the world. The nature of Syria's rebels has become a matter of consternation, both inside this country and in the West. Some rebels are Islamist extremists.

Earlier this year, one rebel commander was shown on video eating an internal organ of a government soldier. By contrast, these two men seemed quieter, almost normal. The younger man, the shopkeeper, said he did not start out as a fighter.

Are you are a good shot?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: No, he said frankly. I was never in the army.

So why did you get involved?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: At the beginning, he said, I was only in the demonstrations. He was a protester. But his government-issued ID marked him as a resident of Douma, that restive suburb. He told us he was stopped at one of the military checkpoints that block the roads all through Damascus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: They called me a terrorist, and loaded me on a bus to prison. He said he was tortured. He said he was shown the bodies of other prisoners and told he was next. He said he was made to sign confessions to murders. He said he was only freed thanks to a sympathetic judge, a judge the government has since removed.

It was impossible to verify the young shopkeeper's story. But he said that during six months in prison, he resolved that if he ever got out, he would join the rebel army.

What was wrong with Syria that made you demonstrate in the first place?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: His answer was complicated. Many rebels are among Syria's majority Sunni Muslims and their fight has terrified religious minorities, including the Alawite minority of President Bashar al-Assad.

This young Sunni man insisted he was not fighting a sectarian fight, though he went on to complain that Alawites have too much power. He told us he wanted the freedoms that protesters in several nations sought during the Arab Spring.

More than two years later, the dream of revolution is a nightmare of civil war. The young shopkeeper said either Assad must go, or the shopkeeper himself must flee the country. He could not imagine any other future.

The older man could imagine one other possibility. He lit cigarettes and smoked as we talked.

What if the situation is that there's some negotiated peace that involves President Assad keeping his job? What if that is the only way to have peace?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Well, the older man said, in Lebanon, the country next door, they once had a civil war that lasted for 16 years. If Assad stays in power here in Syria, we can keep fighting as many years as Lebanon did. He said a whole generation that once dreamed of a good life in Syria, now dreams only of killing their president.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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