As Challenges Shift, Syria's Moderates Navigate Unexpected Territory : Parallels They protested against the Assad regime in 2011, hoping for democracy. Now they're in exile, fighting extremists for their country's future and trying to provide a lifeline for others back in Syria.
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As Challenges Shift, Syria's Moderates Navigate Unexpected Territory

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As Challenges Shift, Syria's Moderates Navigate Unexpected Territory

As Challenges Shift, Syria's Moderates Navigate Unexpected Territory

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It can be hard to remember now that the rebellion against Syria's regime started with peaceful protesters. They hoped to bring down a dictator and build a democracy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

They failed. Civil war came instead. But those activists have not given up.

INSKEEP: Now they're challenging extremist groups as well as the Syrian government. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Gaziantep in southern Turkey.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Here in southern Turkey, Rami Jarrah runs this radio station with a team of Syrian activists.

RAMI JARRAH: What we're doing right now really has nothing to do with what we expected we would be doing.

AMOS: The revolution he joined in 2011 is now unrecognizable. Demonstrations on the streets of Damascus to topple a repressive regime has given way to a war grinding through a fifth year. More than 200,000 are dead, and militant Islamists are seizing more ground. Jarrah and his team of journalists inside Syria provide crucial news for Syrians surviving in a war zone, a lifeline for those who live under rebel control.

JARRAH: What we're doing on every hour is providing tomato prices, bread prices, fuel prices because there's a black market for all of that.

AMOS: There are also updates on pressing dangers, alerts on the relentless barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters and reports on the new power on the ground - the local branch of al-Qaida, the al-Nusra Front. As regime forces were pushed out in Idlib province, including the capital city, Nusra militants led a coalition of rebels and stormed in. Now trusted news is crucial for listeners.

JARRAH: They want to know, is it safe to go to this place now? That's what people care about right now. That's one way to get them to listen.

AMOS: Jarrah also encourages his audience to speak out against abuses by al-Nusra, especially by hard-line extremists who come from across the region who are imposing Islamist rule.

JARRAH: The main problem that the locals have is the foreigners - foreign fighters in al-Nusra. And they're actually in the commanding positions.

AMOS: Foreign fighters, extremists, Islamist courts ruling over civilian life are all the latest challenge for Syrian activists who risked their lives for years in protest against the regime and are risking their lives again. Now, says Jarrah, opposition is building against al-Nusra from civilians chafing under hard-line rules. The radio station has become a forum for complaints.

JARRAH: We face a lot of problems if we broadcast those complaints. We do, but it's a constant battle. We've lost equipment twice because of al-Nusra.

AMOS: Because Nusra doesn't like what you're reporting?

JARRAH: Yes. They're against it.

AMOS: So now your challenge is two-part - you challenge the regime, and you have to challenge the Islamists.

JARRAH: It's been a long time since we challenged the regime, but definitely, given our target audience is in rebel-controlled territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: Last month in rebel-controlled territory, protests erupted in the Syrian city of Salqin in Idlib province. Demonstrators shouted for freedom, the anger focused against al-Nusra. Protesters demanded the militants get out.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

AMOS: Al-Nusra rebels opened fire, killing at least one. The shooting was documented on this cellphone video by a group of activists called Idlib Assassination, the latest underground network in Syria. These activists operate in the shadows at great risk. College professor Hiba Ezzideen leads the covert team. She posts their reports on Facebook and Twitter. In Syria, al-Nusra has already targeted her group in the provincial capital of Idlib.

HIBA EZZIDEEN: In the main street, they're putting two cameras - saying, like, who's coming?

AMOS: So they put the cameras up because they're trying to find you?

EZZIDEEN: Not only us, they don't trust anyone.

AMOS: Surveillance started after her group mounted a powerful poster campaign. The headline - you don't have to marry your killer. That called on Syrian women to resist forced marriages to Nusra militants. Hiba Ezzideen says she's still working for a democratic Syria. She once protested against the regime. Now she's fighting the Islamists. Deborah Amos, NPR News, in Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

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