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Looking Ahead To The Future Of Syria's Crisis


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The war in and around Syria grows more horrific and more dangerous day by day: tens of thousands dead, many more injured, over a million refugees in neighboring countries and who knows how many millions displaced inside Syria itself.

It's almost hard to remember the early days of what's now grown into a civil war. More than two years ago, NPR's Deborah Amos reported on activists hopeful that Syria would be changed by the Arab spring.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When the Arabic channel Al-Jazeera broadcast the latest news, the images come from Naleh's(ph) network

NALEH: Now there is a breaking news in Al-Jazeera saying, protesting to Damascus, chanting we are peaceful protestors for freedom.

AMOS: These protests are an unprecedented challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his family that have ruled the country for more than 40 years. The cost has been high, at least 200 dead according to human rights groups, and many cyber activists have been jailed, but Naleh says more are joining.

CONAN: Many of our listeners have been following Deb Amos' reports for many years, going back to Beirut and Lebanon's civil war, to Gulf Wars I and II, now a civil war in Syria that threatens to engulf the region. If you'd like to ask her about one of her stories, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos joins us now from our bureau in New York. And Deb, always good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

AMOS: Thank you very much, great to be here.

CONAN: And we keep hearing about the danger on the border with Lebanon, where the city of Qusair fell to government forces just the other day; the danger on the border with Turkey; and on Jordan and in Iraq. Today the new danger, the border with Israel.

AMOS: Indeed, in fact what you had early this morning was a rebel attack on the one cross point, Quneitra, between Israel and Syria. The Syrian in the latest report that I just saw took it back. But the consequences have been that the Austrian peacekeepers, part of the United Nations disengagement observer force, UNDORF, say that they are pulling out. They were the guards in that particular place.

And U.N. officials say they were the backbone of the U.N. peacekeeping forces on the Golan. The only forces left are from the Philippines and from India. Croatia pulled out some time ago, following media reports that there were weapons going from Croatia to the Syrian rebels.

So this could be the end of the peacekeeping force, which as you know has not kept the peace on the Golan since the revolt began.

CONAN: And reports today of Israeli tanks moving up closer to the border as skirmishes continue on the other side. This is nothing but another flash point in - well, it is a nightmare of flash points at this point.

AMOS: There are plenty. This is the least of them. Over the past couple of months, it has been clear if you read between the lines in the press that the Israelis have come to terms with the rebels on the other side. In fact, there have been recent reports that they have a field hospital in the Golan, and they were treating rebels today.

There was a crazy report that they were treating one, and they found a grenade in his pocket, and everybody had to move out of the way until they diffused the grenade. But the very fact that these rebels can cross the border means, I think, that the Israelis know who is there. I think the more serious questions are now out of Qusair.

For the first time, we've had Hezbollah openly saying that they are going to fight until the end, until victory behind Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah as you know is the militant Shiite group in Lebanon. And this opens up a whole new phase of this war. Qusair was taken in three weeks because the Hezbollah fighters joined in the fight. Now there are reports that they've moved up around the city of Aleppo that's been in rebel hands for months.

CONAN: So this means not merely they are fighting to control towns just on the other side of the Lebanese border but moving into, well, the heartland of Syria itself.

AMOS: Indeed. It is unlikely, many say, but let us watch, that Hezbollah can take back the town of Aleppo. But the very fact that they are there and menacing Syrian rebels - I spoke to someone that I know in Aleppo yesterday, and he said already some northern villages, civilians are beginning to move north to get out of the way. And it is - there is great concern around Aleppo over what this means.

The regime has been touting this victory in Qusair. Journalists are allowed in for the first time in months, and many of them have made it to Qusair. What they say it is a ghost town. Both sides really pumped up the importance of this small village on the Lebanese borders. The rebels said it's our supply line; not exactly. The Turkish border really has been their supply line.

The regime said we have to take it because it connects the Alawite heartland, which is the group that the president belongs to, with Damascus, the capital. And so when it fell, the regime was able to have a psychological victory. I think at the end of the day what this really means is that we have an entrenched stalemate. And that means this conflict goes on for a long time.

CONAN: And that both sides still think they can win.

AMOS: That is what we've seen. I think we will see how the rebels play what has happened in Qusair. I am told, speaking to rebel sources, that there is great disarray in their ranks. They thought that they would be able to hold it. But they were up against a very sophisticated force coming in from Lebanon. Hezbollah sent some of their best trained troops to come into this battle.

They took it last night in a surprise attack. The rebels had been preparing for a year. They had dug trenches and tunnels, and they had command posts underground. But they couldn't hold it back. And eventually many of them left, taking civilians with them into surrounding villages.

I just checked the wires, and the Syrian army has moved in on those villages. So this whole battle is not completely over yet, but the regime has been able to and has been trumpeting this as a victory, as has Hezbollah. There were reports this morning that in the neighborhoods that Hezbollah controls in Lebanon, people were handing our sweets on the street. This was seen as a huge victory for Hezbollah. They have taken many losses.

There have been many, many funerals. I've heard from so many people who have just run into these funerals. So it was at a price.

CONAN: Interesting, I mentioned your reporting back in the bad old days in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Conflict eventually ended only when Syrian troops marched across the border at the order of Hafez al-Assad. And now it is Lebanese forces going across the Syrian border in a new civil war to back up the son of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad.

AMOS: These two countries have both been intertwined. Syrians often say one people, two countries. That...

CONAN: They sometimes say greater Syria, too.

AMOS: They do. That feeling ebbed with the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005, and many Lebanese believed that it was the Syrian who had carried out that assassination. To this day, the perpetrators of that act have not been publicly revealed. But nevertheless, they are neighbors. They share many family names.

I think what has now been shared is this sectarian divide that has always been a part of Lebanon and has now become a part of Syria. A revolution for freedom has now turned into a war over religion, and that is what is so dangerous in the region.

CONAN: Qusair, largely a Sunni city, devastated by Shiite forces and Alawite forces.

AMOS: Indeed, and that is being noticed across the region. On May 25th, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, made his statement that he was all in, that he would be there until the end, that he couldn't allow Bashar al-Assad to fall. That statement had consequences. A few days later in Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is a renowned Sunni preacher, talked about 100 million Shiites can't defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis, we can't sit idly by.

He called on Sunnis from around the region to come and support the rebels. This is very dangerous talk, in particular because of the kind of language he was using. He called the Iranians safavids. It's a term to use about an old empire. They talked about Shiites as Rafadans(ph). It's a very derogatory term. So you're starting to get language in the region that really does make this cleavage, Sunni, Shia, a very dangerous thing in a region that, you know, can easily be sparked by this kind of talk.

Let's look at Iraq, that had years of a sectarian - sectarian violence that has been reignited again. Just last month, 1,000 people died in Iraq through sectarian violence. So Syria, this crisis is spilling over all of the borders.

CONAN: And it is interesting quotes from the Hezbollah forces attacking the largely Sunni forces in Qusair, calling them murderers of Hussein, going back to the very origins of the Shia sect.

AMOS: Yes, it's been very, very religious language. Nasrallah used the word takfir. You don't really hear that from Shiites. That is a very extreme Sunni term. And what it means is that you can declare somebody a non-Muslim. That makes it very much easier to kill them. In fact, you are a duty bound to do so in some radical forms of Islam. And to hear Nasrallah use that term was very striking for me. I have never heard a Shiite leader use that term before.

CONAN: And so it is the Hezbollah Shia forces from Lebanon, the Alawite forces, that's an offshoot of Shia Islam in Syria, and then, of course, backed up by Iran.

AMOS: Indeed. And what you're hearing from Syrian Alawites, an offshoot, indeed, of Shia Islam, beginning to take on a more Shia character in the language that they are using. For the most part, Alawites are not fervently religious, not at all, and certainly not in Syria. And so that has been a change for them. In fact, up only until the last century where they even considered Muslims even by other Shiites. So this has been a change in identity, and that really is now what this Syrian crisis has boiled down to.

It's about identity. And, you know, when Qaradawi used those numbers, 100 million Shiites against 1.7 billion Sunnis, he was making a point, and his point was you are a minority, and we are a majority, and you can't win.

CONAN: And was he also saying if you can not allow Bashar al-Assad to fall, we can not allow the opposition to lose.

AMOS: Indeed. And it remains to be seen what that means. There are reports of all kinds of people crossing the border to fight in Syria. Now, we hear that Iraqis - both Sunnis and Shiites - are moving into Syria. Jordan is trying very hard to keep a lid on its border. It has its own jihadi problems at home, and Egyptians have been trying to cross that border. I was just in Jordan a few weeks ago, going back on Monday, and you see in the papers, arrests of seven trying to cross the border, arrest of nine trying to cross the border. And so in Jordan, they're trying to hold back the tide, but in Lebanon and in Iraq, holding back the tide is just not possible.

CONAN: And reports today that Jordan asking the United States to provide Patriot missile batteries and fighter jets to help protect that border against the spillover of the war from Syria. We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos in one of our series of conversations looking ahead. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a caller in on the conversation. John(ph) joins us from Houston.

JOHN: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: I'd like to know if there's any kind of undercurrent of the people who are fighting - who are not fighting being sick and tired of the people who are fighting just kind of like being cantankerous with each other. And secondly, how did these strongmen rulers before keep the place under control so well? Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, John.

AMOS: The second question is easy and that is brute force, which is something we saw in Saddam Hussein's rule who also was a minority, a mirror of Syria. Saddam Hussein's Sunnis ruled over the majority of Shiites. And he did it with a very robust security service. The Assad family has done the same. Syria is a little bit harder than Iraq because it's not just Sunnis and Shiites, but it's Kurds and Christians and Yazidis, Armenians. It's a much fuller picture, this mosaic that Syrians talk about.

I must tell you a number that I just read today, 10 percent of Syrians support Bashar al-Assad, 10 percent of Syrians support the rebels and the rest of them want it all to be over. I think that there is no doubt that Syrians are alarmed, terrified about what has happened to their country. They can do little about it. This is a process that has begun. It's very hard to stop. Ask the Lebanese, it was 15 years of a civil war before all sides got so tired that they were willing to make some accommodations. My sense of Syria is we are far, far from that.

We have a political negotiations to go through the summer, if in fact it happens, and the rebels are in no mood to put down their guns and neither is the regime.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Paul(ph). Paul with us from Tucson.

PAUL: Hi. Good morning. My question is, you know, with Hezbollah, you know, going all in with support to the Assad regime, how long until we see a similar response from, you know, al-Qaida-based factions in support of the rebels?

AMOS: That's already happened. In fact, this morning, al-Qaida central and wherever they are and whatever cave they are gave a communique that said, OK, we're all in too. Al-Zawahiri called on Sunnis in the same way that Qaradawi did. Qaradawi's message carries far more weight than Zawahiri.

CONAN: Much more of a mainstream figure.

AMOS: Very - yes. I think that you can argue about mainstream or not, certainly in the region he's considered mainstream, probably not in Washington. But nevertheless, he speaks to millions of Sunnis. And there was a meeting in Doha and it was a group of religious scholars, and they repeated his message in a meeting there. So this is mainstream Sunni religious leaders who are talking like this.

Al-Qaida has already shown its hand in Syria. They are affiliated with a group called the al-Nursa Front. It is part of the rebel movement. Some of them already fought in Iraq. Some of them came from Iraq. They are, by far, the smallest part of the rebels, but they are the best armed and the best trained and the best fighters.

CONAN: Paul, thank you very much.

PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos as we continue our series of conversations and look ahead. We're talking about the conflict in Syria and Lebanon that's spilling over already into Turkey and Jordan and Iraq, at least in terms of the people flowing in and across those borders. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Today, NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos is with us, talking about Syria in the latest of our series Looking Ahead. A year and a half after she started covering the Syrian conflict, Deb visited a school for Syrian refugees in Turkey and witnessed the toll it was taking on the children. The trip highlighted how chaotic the situation had become, especially for young kids.


AMOS: The teachers offer a few hours of normal childhood for these kids, but the war in Syria has touched many young lives. Khamis recalls a boy who enrolled within days of fleeing the northern city of Aleppo after a bomb exploded in front of his house.

KHAMIS: He can't speak any word, OK, for three days. And no reaction, OK?

AMOS: And so the teachers encouraged this silent boy to draw.

KHAMIS: He drew only windows, closed windows and then he opened the window. Why? We don't know. We asked him about what do you mean about open window. He can't speak.

AMOS: Is he OK now?

KHAMIS: Not very good, OK? They are children and they can't endure this tragedy.

CONAN: If you, like many of us, have been following Deborah Amos' reports for years and have a question about one of her stories, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website as well. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get another caller in. This is Nur(ph) and Nur with us from Detroit.

NUR: Hi. I just wanted to make a quick comment about looking ahead. I think there's one thing that we never really talk about in the media and that's local councils that are formed, you know, popping up in a lot of the liberated territory in northern Syria. I was actually traveling there in March, and we did see kind of these pieces of democracy appearing. And I think that that's something that's really important to highlight, especially when we're talking about moving forward. And one other comment, you know, we talked about the spillover of the war. I think it's really interesting because we do know that there are fighters coming from different parts of the region. I do think it's important to know that it's not just kind of one-way spillover, you know, that kind of influence the other people and other nations are having. And I think Syrian's oil is important to consider as well in America. And, you know, we haven't taken a stand because - and had our say and I think that that's very problematic. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Nur, for the call. And, Deb, I know you reported on some of those local councils.

AMOS: I have. In fact, Nur, you're absolutely right. I was in Gaziantep, which is a border city in Turkey, and I watched Aleppo people come and elect a city council and a provincial council. Those people are working on humanitarian aid, which is the basic problem for them in the north, and getting flour to people for bread. And they are hardworking people who believe in the revolution, who believe that they are working towards democracy. And I've done as many stories as I can about them.

The hard part for them is that they are often bombed by the regime. It is very hard to set up a government when you are digging people out of a Scud missile attack. And I looked every day to see how many mortar attacks, Scud attacks, air attacks, and those numbers are pretty steady in the north. So as long as the regime can prevail in the middle of the country, they can impede any sort of democratic development in the places that are rebel-controlled.

At the same time, there are problems in those areas as rebels misbehave, I suppose you could say. There had been many reports of looting in wealthier neighborhoods. And the one provincial capital where the rebels have prevailed, in Ar-Raqqah, it's being run by al-Nusra. And this is the al-Qaida-affiliated part of the rebels. Local people don't like them, and there have been some demonstrations against their rule there, against religious courts that they have set up, against the rules that they have imposed on the city.

So setting up this kind of local administration has all of these challenges, which include being bombed. It is very difficult in the north. The French government, the Italian government, the British government, even the American government has been trying to rush aid into these areas to help this movement flourish.

I was at a meeting just a few weeks ago where the U.S. government had given $1 million, and they had bought up every cell phone in southern Turkey. And there were 15 local councils who'd come across the border to pick up cell phones and computers as a way to talk to each other. That hadn't happened before, that they could actually call each other and say: What is happening where you are? Can we help you? Can you help us? So that is true. It is difficult for reporters to get there, especially now when there is this threat that Hezbollah will take the war to the north.

CONAN: Nora, thanks very much.

NORA: Thank you.

CONAN: And you mentioned in an answer, Deb, scud missiles. When the first ballistic missiles were fired by Syrian forces on civilian areas, it was news. We've become inured to that. We hear reports from Britain and France today that they have confirmed localized use of poison gas in small quantities, in specific locations. Are we going to become inured to the use of nerve gas?

AMOS: We are going to be careful about the use of nerve gas. We have been certainly ignoring the use of scuds in the north. You are right, that it was news. I remember when we saw 40 houses go down by a scud missile, and it took almost two weeks to dig those bodies out. We don't cover it anymore. It is not even in our daily news reporting. It has become so common.

The latest reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria - the White House response was we need more information. This is the first time that we have had, more or less, independent observers, two reporters from Le Monde, the French newspaper, embedded with rebels for two months. And they say that they were eyewitnesses to some sort of chemical attack by the regime. That evidence was brought out of the country, so this is another concern of Washington - a chain of custody. How did the samples get from point A to point B?

The French government seems to be convinced by the evidence that they have seen that this is proof of a chemical weapons attack. It is not clear from the French statement whether they are saying that it is a regime-generated attack. Washington still wants more information and is being very, very cautious about when to declare that the regime actually used chemical weapons.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, and go to Gary. Gary's with us from Delray Beach in Florida.

GARY: Yeah. Well, first of all, I love the way you host your show, and it's a shame that it's not going to continue.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

GARY: But my question is that if the Shia minority rules Syria and Deb said that - earlier that the - Iraq was the mirror opposite, is there - I mean, I realized it's over simplification. But is there - could they somehow redraw the colonial lines to let the Shias have land, and the Sunnis have a different land. And then they would, you know, presumably maybe get along as neighbors instead of within the same - I mean, a grand bargain? Is there any talk of that?

AMOS: Good heavens. That seems so simple.


AMOS: You're talking about borders that were drawn, you know, more than a hundred years ago in San Remo, and this is all of the history of the First World War. There are certainly people talking about not exactly changing borders, but how porous they've become, how unimportant they have become. You now have Hezbollah crossing what should've been an international border to fight on the side of a regime. You have Turkey that has turned its southern border into an arms transport area. You have Syrians who've come out of Aleppo who now live in Gaziantep. And under the Ottoman Empire, Gaziantep and Aleppo were part of the same province. So it's not a surprise that this is where people would go.

I think the problem with changing borders, if you change one, there will be plenty of argument to changing many of them.

CONAN: Yeah. Where do you stop? Yeah.

AMOS: And that is a disaster in the Middle East. You know, in 2005, I was in London, and the map by Lawrence of Arabia of movie fame, but more important of historical fame, and his map was lost in the archives for 60 years. And it is worth going to look at that map - you can find it on the website of the London War Museum - because it was a very different map than the one that was eventually hammered out by the British and the French. And it does take into account where people live.

And when that map was made public, I talked to historians and asked them if it would've made a difference, and they felt that it would have, that it would have been less fraught, that it would have recognized majorities and minorities and where they lived. Of course, you know, you can always say that about history: if only. But there's a lot of questions now about the borders. But the chance of them changing is not very good.

CONAN: Is that the...

GARY: Even though everybody's so tired of all the fighting on all sides, you don't see any scenario were that could move forward, that scenario could move forward?

AMOS: You know, those were questions that the Europeans had to address. They had 100-year wars over religion. And at the end of the day, they got tired and situations changed, and borders did not. So it seems to me unlikely that Middle East borders will change.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the phone call.

GARY: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: We're looking ahead in a conversation with Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Sarah's on the line from Columbus.

SARAH: Yes, hi. I'm actually from Syria. And today, actually, my family, after leaving their home before and going to (unintelligible), they had leave Syria today. My father is an amputee. He's 85 years old, and they had to leave to Jordan. They are scared as hell, and they are - they know the outlook is so grim. They waited two-and-a-half years to make the decision to leave. And let me tell you, people are scared, and they all are looking up to the United States to come and help them, and the European to come help them and not let Assad slaughter them.

And we're allowing Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization, and Iran to help Assad. To me, it's, like, outrageous. How the United States is sitting in the sideline, and why? I don't understand it. I don't get it. The Syrian people - 70 percent of the Syrian people hate Assad and want Assad to go. And I disagree with only 10 percent hate Assad. More than 70 people - 70 percent of the people in Syria are very much - want Assad to go, and they want the revolution to end.

AMOS: I'm so sorry about your father, and I know how painful it is when people have to finally decide to leave. Hardly anybody makes that decision lightly, nor do they make it easily. You know, so many people four or five times before they finally say I can't stay here anymore. I'm glad...

SARAH: Believe it or not - can I say something else? I mean, I still have family there. I'm trying to - I just - they left with their clothes on the back. They left their home the first time with nothing. The second time, they bought furniture. (unintelligible). I just don't understand why the whole world let Assad do this holocaust on the Syrian people, and the whole world is sitting, watching this. I just don't understand it. I don't - and please, somebody please come and help us, because this guy will murder millions in Syria, and he does not care about anybody. And Hezbollah - this is outrageous.

CONAN: Sarah, thank you so much for the call. We wish you and your family the best of luck, and we hope those still inside Syria find a safe place soon.

SARAH: Thank you so much. Thank you for your...

CONAN: Thank you. And, Deb, I know you've heard similar sentiments many times in the past.

AMOS: It is very painful to report on these huge movements of refugees, 500,000 in Jordan alone. And that story is repeated in almost every family in Syria. I think it is very difficult for Syrians to try to understand international politics. I'm sure that the Bosnians said the same. There have been many conflicts, none as bloody as this and none as public as this. What is different about the Syrian conflict is we can see so much of it. And no one can say they didn't know or they didn't see. It is on YouTube. It is on our televisions for anyone who wants to see, they can.

And the real tragedy - and if you listen to that woman and the fate of her family, you can multiply that by thousands, that this week, the stalemate in Syria, the victory in Qusair, the attempt to try to find a diplomatic solution, it all seems so grim, and that we are in for a long and bloody time in the Middle East.

CONAN: And it is the United States that is going to have to make decisions about how much support it provides to the rebel side. It is Russia that will have to make decisions about how much support it provides to Syria.

AMOS: I think the Russians have already made that decision, and I think that we have seen that very clearly. Human Rights Watch, just last week, published a letter between a Syrian commander and a Russians arm supplier. And he was putting in an order for simply the March - the month of March. And it was an extraordinary list of ammunition and machine guns and tank tracks. And I think we look more at the big weapons systems, you know, big controversy over whether Russia will deliver a new air defense system, destabilizing, many say, because it is so advanced.

But the truth of the matter is that the Syrian army is being resupplied on a regular basis, and so these rebels are up against a mighty military force now that has been backed by a very well-trained infantry. What Bashar al-Assad has done is solve his manpower problem. He will have problems with this down the line. This is a country that had a military with an Alawite elite at the top, but a Sunni group on the bottom. He is saying, I am going all out in a sectarian way, and it raises questions about how long he can keep that up.

CONAN: Deborah Amos, as always, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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