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In Syria, Factions Gain Strength Amid Chaos


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington; Neal Conan is away. Jet planes are dropping bombs onto cities on the other side of the world, and we are barely seeing it. This is Syria we are talking about, the country where the unrolling of the Arab spring last year hit a rock solid wall of dictatorship that was not going to yield.

The Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, decided to step on the popular uprising that broke out 18 months after all of the excitement of Egypt, but then a group of rebels decided not to be stepped on. They got weapons, they got some money, they got some organization, and they have been fighting back.

The result is the bloodiest of the Arab uprisings so far, and it is not over. Last week, as the rebels actually claimed to have shot down one of the government's fighter jets, and that is a very big deal, the U.N. pulled out its monitors because their presence had come to be seen as having no effect.

Today, fighting intensified in and near the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, and scores of thousands of people have fled the country. That is the picture in the big strokes. But it is the details we are going to try to put together over most of the next hour because we're not getting a lot of the small details.

We want to draw the close-up picture of life on the ground in the middle of a war that is still both hot and live. We're going to be talking with somebody who just came out, and we also want your help. If you have been to Syria, if you are from that country or are in contact with family or friends who are there now, what can you add to the picture?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, on the Opinion Page, where wheelchairs still are not welcome. But first, the conflict in Syria. Jon Lee Anderson is a reporter for The New Yorker magazine. His report, "The War Within," runs in the August 27th issue of the magazine. He joins us from BBC Studios in London. Jon Lee Anderson, thanks for joining us on this program.

JON LEE ANDERSON: Well, it's a pleasure, John, thanks for having me on.

DONVAN: And as I say, we're looking for the small details, and I want to tell our listeners that your piece in the New Yorker provides an awful lot of them. You have just come out of the country, and I want to know in that sort of, you know, small-picture sense: What is the moment that you witnessed or the image that you saw while there that sticks most in your mind right now?

ANDERSON: Well, there's a number, but one of them, I suppose, would be a visit I paid to a school in the city of Aleppo, now being used as a rebel headquarters. It was covered with the cartoon imagery so recognizable to children around the world - Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Squarepants - incongruously, this was the de facto headquarters for the Free Syrian Army rebels in northeastern Aleppo when I was there.

And in the course of an interview I had with the rebel commander there, one of the men that led the charge into Aleppo in mid-July, there was a scuffle outside. I hear some shouting and what sounded like hitting, you know, fists, that sort of thing. And the door swung open, I went outside, and in a classroom across the hallway, I saw a couple of dozen men, prisoners, sitting at tiny children's school desks, looking very frightened.

And there were a number of fighters between me and the front door. I couldn't see what was going on, but clearly someone at the head of the class was beating another. And a moment later, it spilled outside into the hallway, into the main hall of this school, and it was one man, terrified and angry, hysterical, trying to defend himself from another.

And in the course of the fracas that ensued, I pieced together what had happened. One was a man accused of being a shabiha - that is the Syrian word for these intelligence, paramilitary thugs that go around killing people, torturing them on behalf of the regime. And he was denying - he was denying this and protesting his innocence. The other man was trying to beat him, and he had some handcuffs, he was trying to put them on him.

And there was a scrum; the man was led away. That stayed in my image - sorry, in my memory for a very good reason because although I left that day, I never found out what happened to that particular man. About four days after I was there, a YouTube video was uploaded, and it showed the same rebels interviewing a number of men they accused of being shabiha.

They were covered with blood, and after a few moments, several were led out to made to kneel under the image of Mickey Mouse, where they were machine-gunned to death for nearly a minute for - in a sort of fusillade that lasted nearly a minute, by about a half-a-dozen men.

They were executed in such a way that left no doubts at all to the hatred the men who were shooting them felt. And that is the image I come away with.

DONVAN: Which is interesting and disturbing, I think generally, because we tend to know that their opponent is a dictator, and it's easy them to romanticize the rebels and call them the good guys, or think of them as the good guys and their cause as noble, and yet you say you're seeing incidents of, in that case, a summary execution under a portrait of Mickey Mouse.

Do you come away thinking that these rebels are far more complex than simply the good guys fighting the good fight?

ANDERSON: Well yes. I mean, you know, and of course it is always thus. No civil war is clean. Our - you know, we tend to tie a yellow ribbon around our own soldiers when they go off to war and seem cyclically to forget that they, too, commit mayhem when they're sent off to kill and die. You know, these things happen in war.

And in a civil war, the hatreds are intense and deep, and it's - effectively you open Pandora's Box. Syria is a country that has long been lauded, despite its dictatorship, for its incredible social chemistry, this mosaic of sects and ethnicities that is unlike any other remaining in the Middle East, with Sunnis and Shiites, and Christians, and Turkmen, and Kurds and so forth. But all of that's coming asunder now.

On the one hand, you do have a most vicious dictatorship, which has - a security service which have exhibited the utmost cruelty towards those citizens that fall in their hands. And of course this same behavior has been learned and is being replicated, to a certain degree, on the battlefield.

I think those countries that are supporting, those people that do support a kind of a liberated, a future democratic Syria, free of Bashar al-Assad and his security services, would do well to try to guide the rebels along the path as the war proceeds, so that the kinds of things that happen, beginning to happen with increasing, disturbing frequency, don't.

DONVAN: And we also have the fact that the rebel forces themselves are made up, a significant number of defectors from Assad's military. So depending on the person, not that long ago, he may have been fighting on the other side and carrying out some of these horrid orders. And maybe, I think, what you're saying, is that the practice doesn't die so quickly or the habits don't die so quickly.

ANDERSON: No, that's right. You know, it's - there's an old saying about the fish rots from the head, and of course that is true. There is no other experience for Syrians. For more than - for two generations they have lived under the Assad dictatorship. This is what has been meted out to them, this is what they are meting back out. It's an uphill battle to get them to understand that one shouldn't torture prisoners and so forth.

DONVAN: We have Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker magazine with us. He's just come out of Syria and is describing, in granular detail, some of what he has seen there, in very vivid detail. And we're also asking out listeners who have just possibly come out of Syria or are in touch with family or friends there to tell us what you're hearing, as well.

And we have a lot of people actually already lined up to join us with that, and I want to go first to Mark(ph) in Cleveland. Mark, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK: Yes, hello, I'd like to thank the guest for an interesting perspective on what's going on in Syria. I am a Syrian-American, and my family is from Syria. I've studied in Syria, been to Syria many times. And I think one thing we're not really hearing in the Western media, as much, is the role of al-Qaida or maybe extremist elements in the opposition, and that is a concern.

My own family, some of them are from the town of (Unintelligible), and there has been al-Qaida-type armed groups issuing statements, urging Christians to flee the town. All of my family have fled the town. Just for a note, I do support the opposition. I am a minority among Christians in my support of the opposition, but I am very concerned as to...

DONVAN: Well, Mark - Jon Lee Anderson actually writes to some degree about traces of al-Qaida activity and where to put that into perspective. Jon Lee, why don't you tell us about what you saw when you were in there?

ANDERSON: Sure, Mark, you know, your concerns are well-taken. They are understandable under the circumstances. You know, Syria is a crucible into which everything is being poured at the moment, and there is a component that is extremist. It's not in the majority. It's not in command of the Free Syrian Army or of the battle large. They are...

MARK: I completely agree with you; however when - and you know this, anything when you study the Middle East and you look at conflicts in the Middle East - extremists can seize the moment. I wish we could have a concerted effort from the United States, from the European powers to get to a gradual step-down of the Assad regime so we don't end up in a position where there's massacres against Christians, against other minorities.

I don't really hear that, I really don't, coming out of the State Department, coming out of the press secretaries' offices.

DONVAN: All right, Mark, thanks very much for your call.

MARK: Thank you.

ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, I ran across a couple of jihadi extremist types on their way in, in Idlib, before I went into Aleppo. These were - seemed to be Pakistani men from the United Kingdom. And just a couple of days later, a Dutch and a British photographer were apprehended, detained, interrogated, beaten by a group of foreigners, including men who corresponded to the description of those I had met.

So it is a problem. They were eventually freed by Syrian, Free Syrian fighters who were not of the same stripe. But they're on the battlefield, they remain at large, and it is a concern. I think it's one of the reasons why you've seen - you haven't seen such a large and explicit U.S. role in the conflict thus far, not wanting to provoke.

DONVAN: We are talking about the civil war in Syria with Jon Lee Anderson, who has just come out. And if you have been to that country, if you're from there or are in contact with family or friends, what can you add to the picture for us? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan. President Obama warned the Syrian regime today that there is a red line they should not cross, and that is the use of chemical or biological weapons. That would change his calculus, he said, and may lead to U.S. military action.

Our focus today is on that civil war in Syria and in trying to get a clearer picture of what's really going on on the ground. If you've been to Syria, if you're from there and are in contact with family or friends, what can you add to the picture for us? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Our guest is Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker, and his latest report from Syria called "The War Within" is in the August 27th issue of the New Yorker magazine. And Jon Lee Anderson, we were hearing Mark just before the break had called in and was talking about his - you know, he's wishing that the Western powers would step in. And you indicated that there's some reluctance.

But in terms of the military layout on the ground and even just the basics of the terrain, what makes Syria different from Libya in terms of, you know, what we saw in Libya, a NATO action, mostly from the air? Why does that not become a no-brainer for the Syria situation?

ANDERSON: Right, well, good question, John. For the - you might remember that in Libya, you had an uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi, a traditionally, sort of, on the outs with the government led in Tripoli in the west. And there's also a natural divide between those two parts of Libya. Traditionally, they were, in fact, sort of two emirates, two viliats(ph) in the old Turkish lingo.

Once the students rose up, and there was an armed confrontation, the security forces effectively abandoned their posts. Within a few days, eastern Libya was free of Gadhafi's control. The war that followed was - consisted of him in, sort of, flying raids trying to wrest it back and the rebels, as you might recall, fighting in this kind of back-and-forth war that went on for months along the road.

NATO eventually intervened when it was clear that Gadhafi had the strength to regain control, and he would have attacked the city of Benghazi. In Syria, there's been nothing like. You have a hydra-headed rebellion. You know, it began with demonstrations that were fired upon by the regime, increasingly enlisted men defected to the rebels, very often in their home provinces and towns, providing an armed contingent to these incredible demonstrations that went on, despite the fact that, you know, dozens of people were being shot every day.

Now, of course, it's in the low hundreds. And so eventually you had this highly localized rebellion that had formed around the country. There isn't a single area, though, that the rebels - you can say that the rebels control as such. Until very recently, there has been no single piece of turf that they could call their own, other than parts of cities that were being shelled and so on.

Now, in the region where I was, adjacent to Turkey in the northwest of the country, there is, in fact, a sort of large wedge of liberated turf that's emerged in the past three weeks. And effectively, the guerrillas, that is to say the rebellion, also control the Syrian border posts. So you do have now an actual international border where, you know, men and supplies, refugees, weapons, for that matter, can come and go more easily.

But until now, it's been extremely - this is only one of the reasons why there has not been a NATO intervention.

DONVAN: It's just geography.

ANDERSON: It's also an ally of Russia and so forth. It's very complex. Syria is the perfect storm in the Middle East. Libya was...

DONVAN: Let's bring in - Omar(ph) in Orlando is joining us on TALK OF THE NATION. Hi, Omar.

OMAR: Yes, hi, how are you doing?

DONVAN: We're good.

OMAR: Thank you for covering the situation. Thank you for your guest. I do have a few things - I do have family there. My mom is still living in Aleppo. And the situation is really getting very difficult, very dire in the city. Large population are migrating from the troubled area to the safe area. Food's becoming scarce.

DONVAN: Well, how does she - how does she get food, your mom?

OMAR: I'm sorry?

DONVAN: How does your family get food?

OMAR: You know, like on occasion, you have some areas where, like, some street vendors are, like, selling, like, food or vegetables. Sometimes the shops are open. But most of the time, you would have to go two or three times trying to find a location where you can find some store that's still open that can get food.

DONVAN: And Omar, I'm assuming this food is produced locally, in other words it's from local farmers, bakers...

OMAR: Yes, local farmer food and stuff. Other items like cooking gas, that usually most people use, have skyrocketed in prices. It went up like between - it used to be like 500 pounds for a container, now it's about 4,000, 5,000, if you find it. The situation is getting very bad to the population. In addition to the continuous bombardment, it's really making their life miserable, you know, like hardly they can get any sleep even in the safe area. It just too close, the bombardment.

And the effected people, it's in everywhere now...

DONVAN: And I guess you know, Omar, that unfortunately, today as we speak has not been a good day in Aleppo. Does your family give any thought to trying to get out?

OMAR: I have not spoken to them today. I spoke to them yesterday. Getting out is very hard now. The roads - the international road between Aleppo and Damascus, is unsafe. There's a lot of - you know, a lot of times there's an armed group that they can stop you, or the government. The airport in Aleppo, it's sometimes open, sometimes not, but there's a lot of fighting in between on the road to get to the airport. And it's not sure if there's any flights coming in and out.

So basically the population is kind of stuck in there. Either they can just try to go to Turkey, but still the road's also unsafe because the government's bombarding, you know, the cities and the villages that they don't have control to them.

DONVAN: All right, Omar, thanks very much for sharing your story with us. And Jon Lee Anderson, I want to ask you also your take on civilian life. You describe a scene in your New Yorker piece, in the current issue, in which attack helicopters are flying overhead. You see this - it sounds like a large panorama in front of you. You see attack helicopters in the sky and beneath them farmers driving around carrying their crops to market.

And it just sounds as though these two things don't go in the same picture. How do they go in the same picture?

ANDERSON: That's right. No it's - reality is quite surreal, pardon the redundancy, but it's true. You know, you have a situation where a lot of the little towns, and it's mostly little towns in the north, outside of Aleppo, villages and towns that in some cases are very, very ancient.

You'll have a Kurdish community living eight - you know, four miles away from a Sunni community and nearby a Turkoman and mixed Sunni community, as well. These are all farmers. It's incredibly fertile. It's beautiful, rolling landscape where pretty much everything is grown, from olives to wheat. It's very rich in potatoes. There's also orchards and nuts.

And so, you know, it's harvest season for some of these crops, and farmers are farmers, and they continue to go out and harvest. There was lots of potato activity when I was there, despite the fact that there were, you know, pitched battles taking places in some cases, in the next town over. There were people fleeing Aleppo, coming back to villages that they had previously fled to Aleppo, once a few months ago, was the safe city to flee to.

So you have this bizarre activity on the road and a situation in which the towns, by and large, are in the hands now of insurgents, of the rebels. But ordinary life, although it's sort of grinding to the halt, much in the same way that Omar is describing with increasing difficulties. For those towns near the border, there is commerce, there is some activity taking place.

And yet there are still bases in the north. There was a base called the Rangers Base about five miles from where I stayed in northern Aleppo, which was literally a base you had to drive around the back of, and there were special forces inside, these are Assad's special forces.

By and large, they weren't roving around, but they were firing cannons off, and periodically they would hit neighboring towns and the city. And there was also a helicopter gunship base where they could, at any time, come up and decide to attack this or that town in the hands of rebels and periodically have.

And so, you know, people try to survive wherever they are. If things get very, very, very dire, and usually fathers of families will decide at a certain moment that it's time to take the women and the children out, and that is increasingly happening.

One town that I was in last week was targeted by a giant bomb, one bomb, which may be a new trend. You know, they have...

DONVAN: What do you mean by a giant bomb?

ANDERSON: When I say a giant bomb, I think it was a 500-pound bomb that was dropped, literally, on a civilian neighborhood of four houses. It killed 40 civilians. Now this previously hadn't been done. It's only been about three weeks that the regime has more or less been showing its combat aircraft and mostly in the skies over Aleppo.

This idea of targeting from the air, one of these quote-unquote "liberated" towns in the north near Turkey is - they may be unveiling a new strategy, that is to say OK, you're bothering us in Aleppo, you're making it hard for us, we'll hit you at home where your families are.

And indeed there has been a surge of civilians fleeing towards nearby Turkey in the days since then.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Ibrahim(ph) from Dayton, Ohio. Hi, Ibrahim. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

IBRAHIM: Hi, John. Thank you so much...


IBRAHIM: ...for taking my call. Thank you for covering this issue about Syria. I have - I would like to share with you many things. But one thing has bothered me for a while, that I used to be addicted to NPR, and used to rely a lot on your news. However, you know, for the credibility and the balance, I have not seen that you guys got any guests who could be either be neutral or represent the Syrian people, basically.

DONVAN: Well...

IBRAHIM: Most of your reporters have either an agenda, or they talk one side, like your guest.

DONVAN: Ibrahim, rather...

IBRAHIM: (unintelligible)

DONVAN: Ibrahim, rather than take on our guest, why don't I give you 30 seconds just...

IBRAHIM: No, no, hold a sec. The problem, like, you know, I have - I don't like the government, but I'm still concerned about those who call themselves Free Syrian Army or, you know, opposition. And Syria has been an oasis for tolerance, and like no other place in the world. We do not care about each other's religion. We live in harmony. Syria was, like, second-to-none in the world. Now, you know, you cannot go there on the highway. If you go outside the house, you don't know if you're going to come back. People, like I've heard of moms, when they heard about their children being killed, they ask: Please I hope that - I hope from God that they didn't cut them.

DONVAN: So, Ibrahim, you - what I'm hearing from you is that, in a sense, is a nostalgia for the Syria that was four or five years ago.

IBRAHIM: You know, John, everybody dreams of freedom, democracy and better kind of government there, everything. However, when you want to replace government, you need somebody who's reliable, somebody who is trustworthy, somebody who brings, you know, something good in the table. However, John, you know, unfortunately, the coverage - I mean, I'm really shocked, and I question everything I have heard in the past about anything because why don't you get - invite guests who could represent the people? I'm not saying, you know, I don't want this to understood...

DONVAN: Ibrahim I'm...

IBRAHIM: ...that I support the government (unintelligible).

DONVAN: Ibrahim, rather - Ibrahim, let me just interrupt to say rather than you and I debate this, because we don't have much time, what we're trying to do in the program, in fact, from hearing from you and others is to hear from the people. And I'm going to say goodbye now because of that - because I do want to move on. But to say that your point is noted and that we thank you for your call.

Jon Anderson, actually, in terms of what Ibrahim was just bringing up, you actually investigate this whole issue of just who are the rebels, and do they represent the people? Or whom do they represent? And it sounds like it's a relatively motley crew. And I know motley can be perceived as ragged, and that's not what I mean. But what I mean is eclectic. It's pretty mixed. They're not all on the same page. And as you've already made clear, they're not all the nicest guys. Do they agree at all on what they want?

ANDERSON: They agree on getting rid of Assad. You know, the country, in that sense, has passed the point of no return, it seems to me, at least amongst those predominantly Sunni-Arab rebels who are leading the fight. I'm guessing that Ibrahim is of a different sect - your last caller - and his sort of criticism is somewhat typical. But nonetheless, you have a situation which I think is worrying. You don't have a single political leadership that, say, all the armed rebels in the field declare their allegiance to. You don't.

You have a group, a mosaic of locally led rebellions taking place. The one in Aleppo, I met a couple of the leaders. I met some of their military commanders. One was a former seed merchant, you know. And all of them have military experience. You know, in a sense, they are all true Syrians because they're all united by the fact that they, at one point or another, they compulsorily served their regime as military men. And now they're leading the battle against it. I met two...

DONVAN: Jon, can you stop for just one second?


DONVAN: I just need to say one thing. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

OK, Jon. Go ahead. Sorry.

ANDERSON: You asked me about the various types of men who are involved. Well, it's a whole range. It's what you'd expect from, you know, if Kansas went up in arms against the government, the kinds of men that would be part of that rebellion would range from, you know, former Marines to agricultural supply vendors to farmers and bookstore owners. It's the same sort of thing. It's a cross-section of society, and it's men who served in their armed forces and know how to shoot a gun.

The families, by and large, do their men's bidding. So - but it's very much a communal response to the kind of repressive behavior visited on those communities in recent months by the regime. I met two men who could be described as future warlords. In one town, they each have their own command. One is a man who was a former border smuggler and pretty much used the interview with me to ask for Western support. The other, a young man who met me with a golden sword, a black flag behind him and his hand on a Quran, and said he wants an Islamist state of Syria.

The two could not be more diametrically opposed. At the moment, they have allied themselves to fight and dislodge Assad's army from their town. Who knows what will happen in the future.

DONVAN: Very quick question, because we only have about a minute left. I actually have two. So I'm going to tell you two very quick questions. In terms of logistics, supplies, fuel, money, weapons, people, how much longer can the rebels go?

ANDERSON: They were having ammunition difficulties when I was in Aleppo. They recently got a supply. Where they got them from, I do not know. But the more turf they take, the more time they are on the ground, the more likely it is that they're going to be able to continue to replenish their lethal supplies of equipment and fight the government.

DONVAN: The second question: Are you going back?

ANDERSON: I will be, yes.

DONVAN: Do you know what you want to do when you get there? Are you looking for particular stories?

ANDERSON: I think - I'd like to wait for a new stage in the conflict. I've just come out. I feel that I witnessed one. I'm going to be waiting and watching for the next one. And that, I suppose, will be fully fledged civil war.

DONVAN: Jon Lee Anderson with The New Yorker magazine. His report from Syria is called "The War Within." He joined us from BBC Studios in London. Jon Lee Anderson, thanks very much for talking to us on TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDERSON: Thanks a lot, John. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.