Anti-Government Coalition Shifts Dynamics In Syria

Nov 21, 2012
Originally published on November 21, 2012 12:17 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Much more later today and in the days ahead on the ceasefire announced between Israel and Hamas about winners and losers and what happens next. But what effect of the news will be to refocus attention on the civil war in Syria where there have also been some major developments.

Today, Turkey formally requested NATO to deploy Patriot missiles on the border with Syria. And while the new anti-government coalition wins friends in foreign capitals, it gets a mixed reception from rebel groups inside Syria. NPR correspondent Deborah Amos joins us now by Skype from southern Turkey. And Deborah, always good to talk with you.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And some European nations are already considering Turkey's Patriot missile request. If fulfilled, will that effectively establish a no-fly zone over parts of - over northern Syria?

AMOS: NATO officials are downplaying the no-fly zone aspect of this. But there is no doubt that if there are Patriot missiles on the border, the Syrian air force will think twice about bombing any city close to that border. That is already happening on this - on the Turkish border. There are towns now that are under the umbrella of Turkey.

I crossed the border today into a town called Jarabulus. They haven't been bombed in six months, and it's because they are just about 30 yards on the other side of the border. So to extend that even further will make a huge difference in the north for people who want to get on with setting up governments in their towns, getting on with life in those towns, and not worrying every night about whether they're going to be bombed or there will be artillery strikes in those towns.

CONAN: And what is going on in those towns now? And do those towns welcome, for example, this new coalition?

AMOS: We talked to a lot of people about that today. It's interesting when you talk to the Free Syrian Army, the rebels who are fighting. I was on the border just yesterday near a town called Ras al-Ayn, where there has been fighting. They say, look, the battle is what matters to us. We're not really paying attention. But these are, you know, rebels on the ground. Commanders, by and large, have given their support. There was a hitch in this.

Just a couple of days ago there was a video that was put online. It was a group in Aleppo. And they said that what we want is an Islamic state in Aleppo. They were - very interestingly, they were shouted down. There was a Facebook campaign against them. And many of the men who were in those videos have now posted, saying, well, you know, we actually do support the new coalition. So I think that the coalition is getting the kind of support that they hope for inside. The key always is, can they deliver? And I think that Syrians are in a honeymoon with this new coalition, but they have to deliver, and they have to deliver soon.

CONAN: And what would they need to deliver to start persuading people - weapons?

AMOS: There's a couple of things they have to deliver. I'll give you an example. In Jarabulus, 22,000 refugees are there, and the town is dealing with them. There is no international aid there. And so it is up to the townspeople to care for 22,000 people who have descended on this small farming town. They have to take the money out of their own pockets, buy the tents, bring them bread, make sure they're OK. So there is an international aid component to this. There, of course, is also an arms part to this.

But let me tell you, there were two events over the last couple of days that really mean that the rebels don't need international arms. They took two major bases around Aleppo. And as one commander said, I have never seen so much booty. And these were heavy weapons that were taken from the Syrian army.

You know, analysts in the past couple of days have stopped calling this a stalemate. And they are beginning to recognize that the rebels have made significant gains on the battlefield. And the weapons that they took in these two places will make a major difference in the way that they're able to fight. And it also shows that they are more organized than they've been in the way that they are fighting the regime.

CONAN: We've also - obviously the opposition forces inside Syria have no air force whatsoever. They have been trying to attack Syrian air bases on the ground to limit Syria's air capabilities that way. Is that beginning to have an effect?

AMOS: It has had some effect, and we will see what these new weapons will bring for them. What they've been using are heavy artillery on the back of trucks. I saw them today as we walked into this town because they're very proud of them, and they wanted us to take pictures of them standing on this bit of weaponry. They have gotten much more effective in shooting down helicopters. It's a little harder with MiGs. They fly much higher. And that has been the complaint from rebels and civilians, that the rebels may control the ground - certainly in northern Syria they do - but the Syrian regime continues to control the air, and they can bomb at will. And this is on everybody's mind. It makes life so miserable because it's so unpredictable. And it's been interesting to watch. Syrian activists have been drawing this comparison between Israeli bombings in Gaza and Assad's crackdown. And it shows you that - how emotional this is for people. It is the thing that is on their mind, these bombing campaigns.

CONAN: You can put a 40-millimeter canon on the back of a truck. There's a sort of universal Soviet system called the ZSU-23-40. That's a quad mount of 23 millimeter canon. You could put that on the back of a truck. Are they putting bigger things than those on backs of trucks?

AMOS: Well, you know, the military hardware is not my specialty. I kind of look at the refugees, so good for you. But what I do know and what we can count is that they have been pretty effective in taking down some of these planes. There was a MiG that was shot down outside of Damascus. And so, in effect, this is their homemade stinger, they're homemade SAM-7. And all of this stuff has been captured from Syrian airbases. They continue to ask for these weapons from the international community.

In some ways it's become a way to say, do you support us? And if you do, will you give us those weapons? I have talked to a number of military analysts who say they don't really need outside weapons. They are beginning to capture what they need.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Deborah Amos on the border between Turkey and Syria. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as the areas under rebel control expand, are there coalitions developing between these local groups that have liberated various areas? Are there frictions developing among these groups?

AMOS: We asked that today in this small town, and there is a council that has formed there. But these are people who've never done this before. They have committees for finding flour for the bakeries. They have committees for the refugees. They have committees for cleaning up the town. But all of this is done with no money. And because what happens when you are in a, quote, "liberated area," when the rebels liberate the area from the government, you are essentially under sanctions from the government.

You get no more power. You get no more phone service. You have no Internet, no electricity, and certainly no goods coming in to the town from Syria. You have factories now in Aleppo that have been bombed and are making nothing. And if you're lucky enough to live on a town that's near the Turkish border - we saw some amazing scenes today. There were taxis and trucks that were so filled, mountains of baby Pampers, baby wipes, Brewer's yeast, refugee tents, so much so that the driver couldn't see out the window. And they were being guided through the border to bring this stuff in.

Commerce is beginning, but it has to come in from Turkey because you can't get it from further South. The regime cuts you off. So imagine trying to set up a local government under these kinds of pressures if you've never done it before. And so they were trying their best. I asked somebody today, do you have any connection whatsoever with the outside coalition, these new people that are representing you to the international community? And they said no. They have no communication at all. So we still aren't at the point where this coalition has grassroots connections in the areas that have now been liberated by the rebels.

CONAN: There are also reports that there have been clashes between different rebel groups, particularly between Kurdish rebels and those representing some Arab forces.

AMOS: Indeed. I stood on that border of Ras al-Ayn just yesterday. We were in a truce, Monday. The fighting exploded between these two groups, some 18 people are dead on both sides. There were rebel commanders who were killed and also Kurdish politicians inside Ras al-Ayn. The Free Syrian Army is predominantly an Arab group. This is the first time that they have come to a town that has a substantial Kurdish population.

The Kurds want some autonomy for themselves. They are not convinced that they will get it under any kind of authority that is run by the Free Syrian Army. And so they fought back. Now, we still have a truce. We've had one. We're now in the third day of a truce. My guess is it means that the Kurds are not absolutely convinced that they can win this fight. And what happens in Ras al-Ayn is very important because the Kurds are concentrated in the Northeast up by the Turkish border.

There are bigger towns that are still under Kurdish control. If the Free Syrian Army goes into those towns without some sort of negotiations between these groups, there could be a new rift between different armed groups who are working to overthrow the regime. And that is a problem. People are very worried about what happens in Ras al-Ayn if that truce holds or if there is a fight and a power struggle between the Kurds of the Northeastern Syria and the Arabs of the Free Syrian Army.

CONAN: As we read about new tensions between the Kurds of Iraq and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, this could have some interesting aspect for that as well. Deborah Amos, thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Neal. Very nice to talk to you.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Deborah Amos reporting from the border between Turkey and Syria. Tomorrow we'll talk with Jerry Brotton, author of "A History of the World in Twelve Maps," about how technology has changed the way we draw maps and understand borders. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.