With Rebels In Disarray, Syrian Regime Appears Confident

Analysts explain that Assad defines victory as holding on to key territory, including Damascus, and they say Assad's goal is to stay in place until 2014, as he said he would, to run in a presidential election. The overall commander of the Free Syrian Army says his rebels are getting hammered by the regime in the south because arms shipments stopped over a month ago.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

We begin this hour with talk of Syria. The civil war there has now lasted two years. In that time, tens of thousands of people have died, and more than a fifth of Syria's population has fled the country. This week brought some revived hopes for a negotiated peace. The U.S. and Russia agree to convene an international conference that would bring the Syrian government and the opposition to the negotiating table to work out a political transition.

For more on that, NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from southern Turkey. And, Deb, what more can you tell us about this U.S.-Russian initiative?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: There has been a lot of diplomatic activity in the past 24 hours. Everybody's been meeting with everybody. Britain backed the negotiations. In a meeting in Moscow today, Turkey's foreign minister said, good idea. Jordan and Iran welcome the initiative.

For some time now, the international community has had no idea how to end this crisis. So when the U.S. and Russia teamed up, everybody else got on board, even regional backers who believed a military solution was better than a negotiated one. But now the hard part begins: how to get the Syrians to the table.

CORNISH: Deb, to talk more about the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad has often said stop arming what he calls the terrorists and we can talk. Is Damascus willing to come to the table?

AMOS: It's Russia's job to convince Assad that he can't win this militarily. It's a compromise that's needed to save the country. There are some in his regime who still believe that victory is possible. Amr Azm, a Syrian-born professor at Shawnee University in Ohio, says the regime has recalibrated its victory points by holding on to key cities - including the capital, central Syria - to the coast and this territory along the Lebanese border. This is now what counts as victory. This is what he said.

DR. AMR AL AZM: From the regime's perspective, I think the ability to hold those core areas, maintain connection between them and be able to hold Damascus, because Damascus is the key. If you hold Damascus here, then you can say you're actually the state even though, essentially, you're only holding a very small part of the entirety of Syria.

AMOS: That's analyst Amr Azm. He says the regime would come to any negotiations in a very strong position and confident.

CORNISH: Now, who's going to speak for the political opposition in this? Is this the Syrian opposition in exile? Is there anyone who speaks for the rebels?

AMOS: Well, the Syrian opposition in exile doesn't really lead anybody and certainly has no control over fighters in the field. The largest opposition group says any solution requires the immediate removal of President Bashar al-Assad and his security apparatus. But both Washington and Moscow have been very vague on Assad's future role.

As for the rebels, they're divided too. You have Islamist radicals, and you have moderates. They have lost ground to the regime because the weapons shipments have stopped, and that may be partly to convince them that they can't win militarily.

This week, the U.S. delivered a huge package of nonlethal aid - food. But Salim Idris, who's a defected general that's supported by the U.S., Turkey and Arab allies, says what his fighters need is weapons.

BRIGADIER GENERAL SALIM IDRIS: Even if they have eaten these ready-to-eat meals, that's very good, but weapons and ammunition are the tools which we need in the battlefield.

AMOS: That's Salim Idris. It appears that neither Washington nor Moscow now want a military victory, not by the regime and not by the rebels, which risks regime collapse with radical groups moving in. So a negotiated settlement is the last hope.

CORNISH: Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos reporting from southern Turkey.

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