On Syria's Front Lines: A Week With The Rebels
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
In Syria, the battle between government troops and rebel fighters in the city of Aleppo is apparently intensifying. Activists say that rebel-held neighborhoods in Syria's second city are being bombarded by military helicopters.
Throughout this week, NPR's Beirut correspondent, Kelly McEvers has been bringing us stories from parts of Syria controlled by the rebels. She crossed the border into Syria earlier this month and she joins us now to talk about her experiences.
Kelly, thanks so much for being with us.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SIMON: What did you find? What did you see?
MCEVERS: Well, kind of the most surprising thing that I saw was just how much territory these rebels control. I had been in Syria with the rebels last year, and at that time, you know, it was maybe a little piece of a road or a little section of an orchard that they could say was Free Syria. That's what the like to call it when they control a piece of land. But now, it's entire towns, stretches of highway - like government, federal highway.
We sat in an ice cream parlor and ate, you know, ice cream with a bunch rebels who had guns on their backs, you know. And they felt no fear whatsoever to be operating that way. They would take over a police station or a post office in some town. They're basically the local authority. Granted this is just a small part of northern Syria, but it's a much larger part than we had thought.
SIMON: Recognizing there are several different answers, who are these guys? Who are the rebels?
MCEVERS: That is the tough question to answer. They call themselves the Free Syrian Army. There are dozens if not hundreds, maybe up to a thousand little groups. They call themselves groups. Units, perhaps maybe could be as many as eight guys and up to 20 guys. Most of them are civilians. I think a lot has been made that they are defected from the Syrian Army. While they do play an element in the rebels, it's mostly civilians.
It's guy who was a carpenter and decided to join the uprising. Or someone who liquidated his cement business and decided to use that money to buy weapons, and basically buy influence. They're basically people who've had enough; who protested, who got shot at, detained; who saw their villages get shelled and decided they just couldn't take it anymore, and they're going to defend their people.
SIMON: There're divisions among them?
MCEVERS: Definitely and there're divisions over from the lowest-level things, like how to conduct a battle. You know, the regime's tanks are moving in to this town and we need to - what should we do? Should we go after them at night or in the morning?
There're divisions about, I think, you know, sort of the level that the role that religion should play in all of this. I think some of the groups are more Islamist than others. There is some talk that extremists are involved in the Free Syrian Army. I didn't see any evidence of that, but I know other respected journalists have seen of evidence of al-Qaida-linked groups among them. Small portion of it, but still there.
And then there's just sort of the bigger questions among them about how are we going to topple this regime? What are we going to do? And I did not get a sense that there is large-scale sort of strategy and planning going on.
SIMON: There were a lot of times in your pieces when the resentment towards America was palpable and audible. America and the world for not intervening. What did they tell you? Help us understand that view.
MCEVERS: I think now people have an understanding that, you know, the United States is not going to invade Syria as it did in Iraq. It's probably not going to impose no-fly zone as it did in Libya for a number reasons, because it would be very complicated to do that. But I think there is still a sense of a part of the Syrians that more could be done to help them. I mean, the diplomatic community is completely flummoxed and is constantly fighting about what to do. It can't get a, you know, a resolution passed in the Security Council.
You know, they look at the Libya experience and they say, OK, great. If you can't give us a no-fly zone but there's some coordination, there's some help, there's some on-the-ground training that you could give us - this is the rebels talking - and some weaponry you could help us with. And they just don't see that happening.
SIMON: You're going to take a well-earned break, to say the least.
SIMON: I'm wondering what story in Syria you look forward to doing when you get back.
MCEVERS: Whew. To say look forward to covering the story may not be the way they say it. I hate to sound too pessimistic but I don't see this going in a very good direction. I think people thought that the rebels maybe had some momentum. And I think all the journalists and analysts who are following this think there is going to be that moment, like we saw in Tripoli and Cairo where the regime falls and there's a moment of celebration. I don't actually see this going that way.
I think it's going to be more bloody and more difficult, even if the regime falls. What we see now is so much sectarian violence. The regime is a minority sect, the Alawites, and most of the people opposing it are Sunnis. There's a lot of killing between these two groups. So that's probably the stuff I'm going to have to look into when I get back.
SIMON: Good to have you here. Thank you.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
SIMON: NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking with us after a weeklong reporting trip to rebel-controlled Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.