Assad Warns Other Countries To Stay Out of Syria
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
None of the dramatic images coming out of Libya can be welcome news to the president of Syria. Bashar al-Assad has been doing his best to avoid what now appears to be the fate of Colonel Gadhafi. And last night, for the first time since the U.S. and other governments called on Assad to step down, he spoke to his people. He gave a lengthy interview on state television, saying he was, quote, not worried about security, and warning against foreign military intervention.
NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Syria. She joined us from the city of Hama. And Kelly, it's been very hard for reporters all along to get into Syria. How did you happen to get to Hama?
KELLY MCEVERS: Well, I'm on an official tour of Syria right now. The name of the tour is called Syria is Fine. It's, obviously, organized by a pro-government organization. There are Russian journalists here, French journalists, journalists from Europe. I'm actually the only American journalist on the tour right now.
So what we're doing is, we're - we've come to the city of Hama, which was the center of protest over the last five months. You'd just - thousands and thousands - tens of thousands of people in the streets, in this city. And what the government is doing now is showing us that those protests are, by and large, over, and showing us burned-out buildings that they say are the work of terrorists, not protesters.
MONTAGNE: And what else are you seeing, besides what they want you to see?
MCEVERS: Right. So we had a press conference with the governor of Hama. He was showing us videos of these acts of terror. But then as we walked out of that press conference, right across the street, there were - was a group of, you know, probably a hundred young guys yelling the tell-tale slogan: The people want the fall of the regime.
This is a pretty bold move in a place where, you know, people get arrested simply for talking to the media. Several of them are covering their faces. And all of sudden, you know, the whole scene kind of spiraled out of control. They wanted to control our movements very much. And at that moment, they weren't controlling our movements at all.
MONTAGNE: Well, how else are people reacting to President Assad's statements?
MCEVERS: You know, activists around the country who we contact through other channels - not while we're on these official trips - are telling us that, you know, he's been saying, basically, the same thing; that, you know, he's trying to enact some reforms. This was what he said in his speech last night.
I think they're saying they want to see more evidence of these reforms. They're looking for something a little more concrete, and they're hoping that the government will stop shooting at protesters first.
MONTAGNE: These opposition groups, several of them have been gathering outside the country in Turkey - doing what?
MCEVERS: Holding lots of meetings. There are several different groups that you can count as quote-unquote outside opposition groups. Then you've got the inside opposition groups of people who are actually organizing the protests; disparate groups - people from different backgrounds, political backgrounds, religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds.
So what they're trying to do in Turkey right now is come together, name a national - the Transitional Council, as they call it. But they still haven't come up with an official list of who would be on this council, and it seems like they're still talking.
This, of course, is what worries a lot of diplomats who are - and officials who - Western officials who are working on the Syrian portfolio, is that, look, you know, we're calling for the fall of Bashar. But we're also wondering what's next.
MONTAGNE: What's next in a country - like so many countries in that region - that has no experience with democracy, with self-government.
MCEVERS: Exactly. And the only institution in this country is the Baath Party. You know, this is a single-party country. There aren't - you know, it's not like opposition groups have been able to flourish in the form of NGOs or other civil institutions. And so this is something that's very worrying - I think -again, to diplomats who look at these opposition groups and say, look. If you guys can't even really, you know, get together right now and figure out who's in charge, then that doesn't bode well for the future.
MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers is speaking to us from the Syrian town of Hama.
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