Syrian Militants Battle For Christian Village

NPR's Deborah Amos speaks with host Scott Simon about the war in Syria, including the recent fight for a small Christian town in the hills north of Damascus. The town is under attack by hard-line Islamist militants.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The United States and Russia have agreed to try to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal by the middle of 2014. Secretary of State Kerry made the announcement today from Geneva where he's been holding intensive talks the past three days with the Russian foreign minister. Now, if Syria's President Bashar al-Assad refuses to comply, Mr. Kerry said the United States would seek a U.N. resolution allowing for the use of force. Today's joint announcement has reduced the likelihood of any U.S. military strike against Syria but it has not halted Syria's civil war or the enormous flow of refugees into neighboring countries. We turn now to NPR's Deborah Amos, who has been following events from Syria in Beirut. Deb, thanks very much for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: In your estimation, do you foresee today's announcement of an agreement affecting the situation on the ground?

AMOS: Not likely to affect the fighting on the ground. We have already seen that rebel General Salim Idriss in a press conference in Istanbul - he is the leader of a faction of the rebels, the Free Syrian Army, backed by the West - he said: The initiative doesn't interest us. For him, the chemical weapons attacks have killed less than 2 percent of those who have died in Syria. He said that the U.S. secretary of state called him, assured him the threat of force is still on the table. But Idriss said that a few days ago, he gave the U.S. information that the regime was moving some of those chemical stocks to Lebanon and Iraq.

There is still an imbalance of arms for the rebels. A spokesman for the political opposition said: Our people will not feel ease. The regime is killing and bombing civilians with conventional weapons, he says. So I think on the ground, Syrians who feel the brunt of the regime's power from the air, from barrel bombs that are dropped from helicopters, from hospitals that are targeted, this is nothing for them because of the way that they've been living for the last two and a half years.

SIMON: And as we've been fastened on those talks in Geneva over the past two days, what's been happening in Syria on the ground?

AMOS: The civil war has resumed. There was a lull after the August 21st attacks. But the regime has been back up in the air. They hit a hospital in northern Syria. There has been fighting across the country. One battle that's gotten quite a bit of attention is because of the headlines. And they're very provocative - looked on in Congress as this debate was happening about whether the U.S. Congress would back strikes against Syria.

And here's the headline: Christians Flee Village Where Syrians Speak the Language of Jesus. And I'm talking about the historic village of Ma'loula, and Syrians there actually still do speak Aramaic. And it's been spared from the fighting since the beginning of the conflict. Built into a hillside, there's two monasteries there. But fighting broke out on September 4th. An Islamist group known as the Nusra Front - this is a group linked to al-Qaida - sent a suicide bomber to blow up an army checkpoint. And then a coalition of rebels, including more moderate local rebels, also entered the town. And the fighting's been going on ever since.

SIMON: Anybody clearly in control?

AMOS: At the moment, no. Both the rebels and the regime are outside of the town. It's very interesting about this place; it's not particularly strategic, but when the rebels entered the town, they were aware that they had a perception problem, because all sides went into full propaganda mode. The local rebels posted videos showing how they helped the local Christians. Even Nusra Front posted a video showing a commander urging his men not to harm the churches, while Syrian state television countered with a number of interviews with Christians who said the rebels had forced them to convert, had burned the churches.

We called a sister, who is running one of the monasteries there, Sister Polagia(ph). She heads the Mar Taqla Monastery, and this is what she had to say.

SISTER POLAGIA: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: It's in Arabic. And she said that the rebels had knocked on the monastery door late at night and when she didn't answer they kicked the door in. But they didn't enter the monastery. And she was called a terrorist by some pro-regime Facebook pages. When the army arrived, and she got on Syrian state television, she said that she'd protected some pro-regime people in the monastery. It's interesting to look at this particular conflict because it shows you how complicated Syria is and how difficult to stop this civil war.

SIMON: And, quickly, the U.N. inspection team report is expected to be released on Monday. I guess the secretary general kind of gave us a taste of it. Any effect expected on the ground?

AMOS: Well, he said, in remarks he didn't think were going to be published, that it will show that chemical weapons were used there and he said that President Bashar al-Assad had committed crimes against humanity.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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