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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. They're trying to bring down a government using makeshift weapons cobbled together in workshops, part of a shadowy, grass roots arms industry. That glimpse into the world of Syrian rebels comes from C.J. Chivers of the New York Times. Earlier this month, he and photographer Bryan Denton spent five days with the rebels in northern Syria. He's now back in the States and joins me to talk about what they found. C.J., welcome to the program.

C.J. CHIVERS: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Your story running in the New York Times today describes these rebels assembling rockets and mortars pretty much any way they can. Talk about who is making these weapons, and what they're making.

CHIVERS: Well, what you see in Syria is, I think, common to insurgencies across the Middle East and beyond. The war broke out and one side had, you know, a large conventional arsenal. And the other had virtually nothing at all. You know, hunting rifles and shot guns and the like. And so, over time as the fighters and their guerilla movement worked with local businessmen and tradesmen, they developed a sort of underground arms industry that manufactures all sorts of weapons.

And these are being made by local tradesmen. You know, there's a painter who's responsible for making many of the explosives because he has experience in mixing chemicals. There are electricians who are making and wiring the circuits for bombs, and putting together the detonators. And there are machinists who make the bodies of rockets and mortar shells and the like. It's kind of - we're seeing a revolution being waged by a wide cross-section of the society that's come together in this really novel fashion to equip a force that started out with almost nothing at all.

BLOCK: When you were with the rebels, you were there when an arms smuggler came from Iraq. He was delivering machine guns and a mortar and a bunch of ammunition to the rebels, weapons that, indirectly you say, are coming from the United States.

CHIVERS: The smuggler was very explicit that, you know, the weapons that the United States had provided to the Iraqi Security Forces are something like freely available in Iraq right now to bidders who show up with cash. And, as he put it, both sides actually are buying weapons from the Iraqi security forces. The Syrian government and its loyalist's militias as well as the rebels are all sending their agents or their, you know, local businessmen to meet with these Iraqi smugglers with shopping lists, and weapons are coming in. We're tracking down some of the mortar rounds right now, but it does look to me as if they were manufactured in the United States and likely transferred to the Iraqi security forces who then passed them on.

BLOCK: You were with the rebels in Aleppo province in the north of Syria with a group called the Lions of Tawhid - part of the Free Syrian Army. How would you describe who they are? Are they mostly army defectors, mostly former civilians?

CHIVERS: I think when you look at the group I was with, what you're seeing is social movement that's been evolving. It began with local men. There was the crackdown last year, caused many people to move past disaffection with the government to outright anger and disgust. And these men came together and formed fighting cells. Over time, as they succeeded and as they, if you will, coaxed many defectors, or many soldiers to defect from the army and join them, the ratio started to shift. So the group now has 52 members. And 37 of them are defectors from the active service of the Syrian army or air force.

BLOCK: How are these rebels getting intelligence about government positions, who's where, what they have, things like that?

CHIVERS: Well, in Aleppo province this tactical tide has shifted over the summer and it's the government that's on its heels, and the rebels who have the run of most of the countryside, and so they have very good intelligence. They have people on all of the roads and when you're driving with a commander, it's actually kind of fascinating, because people are coming up constantly to his pickup truck on motorcycles and telling him various snippets of information, and then drifting away on motorcycles. I mean they have a very keen awareness of what's going on immediately around them. And to a certain extent up to the fences you will of the remaining Syrian army positions.

They also have a network inside the army. Many of these guys recently served and have friends in the Syrian army and they're communicating back and forth to an extent, trying to convince more people to defect. And so, there's a lot of interplay between the two forces.

BLOCK: C.J., in your story that ran in the New York Times last week, you describe watching as the Syrian rebels, whom you were with, took a prisoner, a militia member who had been captured, and sent him out on a suicide mission. He was supposed to drive a truck packed with explosives to a government checkpoint. An unwitting suicide bomber, as you write about it. And ultimately the bomb failed. I wonder if you could describe what was going through your head as you watched this all unfold.

CHIVERS: Well, it happened very quickly. We knew that there was an attack planned for a checkpoint before dawn. And we had been busy, Bryan and I, until sometime after midnight. And we decided to lay down and get a little bit of sleep, and I think we fell asleep for 15 or 20 minutes and someone gave me a good, firm kick. And I jumped up and kind of went outside in my socks very quickly and I saw the prisoner being led away in a blindfold and put into a truck. So I ran back and, in turn, gave Bryan a kick and said, you better get up, there's something happening. And he grabbed his camera as I grabbed mine and we went back out and started to work.

Now the prisoner was in the front of this compound. And the commander of the rebel group called my name and led me to the back of the compound, where we stepped through sort of a mouse hole in the wall, and out back, you know, almost against the wall were a pair of trucks. One of which had this bomb on it. And I began to talk to the guys who were putting some branches and the like on top of the bomb to camouflage it, or to obscure it from view for the ride down the road. And after just a couple of minutes of that, the man in the truck started it up and drove off with it.

And I hopped in it very briefly until we got to the main road and I saw the truck that had the prisoner in it pass in front of us. And I hopped out of the truck at that point. And I suspected that what was happening was in fact happening, but only had that instant to really digest it. In fact, the amount of time it's taken to describe it, probably is longer than the amount of time in which this all unfolded.

BLOCK: When the rebels came back later, quite dejected that this planned suicide bombing had failed, were you relieved when you realized that, in fact, this prisoner survived?

CHIVERS: You know, I'm a reporter. And my first instinct was to find out what happened. And when you're really working in an circumstance you tend to stay in the pursuit of facts. And so it was really just a matter of interviewing. And as the interviews take shape, your understanding of what happens takes shape. And that certainly does give you a lot to think about.

BLOCK: That's C.J. Chivers, senior writer with the New York Times. We were talking about his time with the rebels in northern Syria. C.J., thank you very much.

CHIVERS: Thank you for having me.


CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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