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Assad Deflects Blame In Houla Massacre


Let's turn to Syria now. Syria's president gave his first public speech in five months yesterday. Bashar al-Assad told the Syrian Parliament that his government was not responsible for the massacre in Houla last month, in which more than 100 people were killed, nearly half of them children. Also, there is new Syria-related violence in northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border. And to talk about this we've reached NPR's Kelly McEvers.

Kelly, good morning.


GREENE: And, Kelly, it's pretty rare that we hear from President Assad. I mean, what was this speech? What do you make of it?

MCEVERS: Right. This is the first speech since January. He was speaking in the newly seated parliament. Syria did have parliamentary elections a few months back. You know, some people called this speech defiant. I would call it calculated. This was not a speech for the international community. This was a speech for Syrians. Syrians who already support Assad, Syrians who might be sitting on the fence, and Syrians who oppose him.

I mean, he made it very clear. He said this is not an internal problem that we have. You know, meaning this isn't a, you know, grassroots protest movement that wants to see me out of power. This is actually an external problem. And this is the narrative that the regime has put forward time and time again.

And instead of really denying any government involvement in the Houla massacre, in some ways he almost just sort of disassociated himself from the notion altogether. You know, he said, we watched the images from Houla as well with horror and only monsters could commit such a crime.

Again, sort of playing into the narrative that all of the problems in Syria are the responsibility of the sort of third force, these terrorists that are funded by the outside world - by the United States and by Israel and by Saudi Arabia, and all of Syria's enemies. He also said something really interesting. He likened Syria to, you know, a wounded patient on an operating table.

Assad himself trained as a doctor. And, you know, he said, if you're trying to help a patient and get blood on your hands, would you be accused of having blood on your hands? Or would you be accused of actually trying to save that patient's life? So, basically the message to the Syrian people was, you know, we're not hurting you - we're helping you.

GREENE: It's such a different picture he paints than what we talk about on the outside. I mean externally, we talk about Western countries blaming Syria's government for that massacre. And also, this United Nations peace plan that his government has supposedly agreed to. I mean did that come up in the speech at all?

MCEVERS: You know, interestingly, it really didn't come up at all. And this is supposed to be the way forward, a way that his own government agreed to back in April. But he really didn't mention it. Instead, again saying this isn't an internal problem; the way forward is, you know, political dialogue. You know, we can resolve our differences.

And also said that, you know, this newly seated parliament that sort of this is a slap in the face of anyone who says that we have this kind of internal problem.

GREENE: Is there a sense coming out of the speech where we go now? I mean the U.N. plan seems like its dead in the water, at least for now.

MCEVERS: Right, and that's the problem as always, week in and week out, it's that nobody has an alternative. Nobody has a plan B. So still, you have the international community wary of declaring this a failure, if they don't have anything else to put in place.

What we are seeing though is more and more talk about putting the pressure on Russia, one of Assad's remaining allies in the international community. Saying to Russia, look, we really need to talk him into some kind of abdication of power, where he steps down. But there's just no indication that Assad is ready to do that. And I think the speech made it clear he's convinced he's got a firm grip on power. And he doesn't see any reason why he would have to take any further steps.

GREENE: And, Kelly McEvers, you're based in Beirut. And it appears now that there's more violence in the northern Lebanon, not unrelated to the conflict in Syria. I mean, what is happening and how serious a concern is that?

MCEVERS: Right. This is an area in northern Lebanon in the city of Tripoli, where you've got Sunnis and Alawites - Alawites are a kind of offshoot of Shiite Islam - living side by side. The problem is that this sort of mirrors the conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime, President Assad, the ruling clique in Syria are Alawites and most of the people - generally speaking - who oppose him are Sunnis.

And so, you've got this area in northern Lebanon, very close to the border with Syria, where a lot of the problems are kind of spreading. You've got to pro-Assad folks fighting against anti-Assad folks in this one neighborhood. The violence got very bad over the weekend, several people dead. It's probably the worst violence we've seen in this neighborhood. We have to keep in mind that there's been a lot of fighting over many years in this neighborhood over other issues, not just Syria.

But what's troubling, analysts here in the region say, is that as the grievances related to what's going on next door continue to escalate, that will just give people more reason to fight in this neighborhood and possibly beyond.

GREENE: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut following the situation in Syria and also the violence in Lebanon now. Thanks so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome, David.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.

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