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Reporter: Syrians Put Faith In Russians To Help End Conflict


We're going to turn now to Thanassis Cambanis. He has just returned from Syria. He was reporting for Foreign Policy magazine, and we reached him in Beirut. And Thanassis Cambanis, welcome to the program.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Great to talk to you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And, you know, first, we should say, we don't get a lot of coverage from inside Syria these days. How hard is it for a Western journalist to get in?

CAMBANIS: It's really hard, but they've opened the window a tiny bit over the summer, given a couple of non-American journalist visas. And they seem to think they have a compelling story to tell about fighting terrorism and about defending minorities, especially Christians, against an onslaught of what they describe as Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

MCEVERS: And so describe for us where you were allowed to go.

CAMBANIS: I was pretty heavily monitored by the Ministry of Information, which sent people along with me to most of my interviews. And I was able to go to the coastal cities of Tartus and Lattakia, which are booming regime strongholds. I was also able to go see Homs, which is the largely destroyed city known as the capital of the revolution at the beginning of the uprising and which today is something of a ghost town in the process of being reinhabited. And finally, I spent about half a week in Damascus and its suburbs at the end of my trip.

MCEVERS: So by and large, these are pro-government, as you said, pro-regime machine areas. And in these places, people don't really see a distinction between so-called moderate rebels and jihadists, right? How do they see it?

CAMBANIS: The people I talked to almost uniformly described the opposition as terrorists or as Wahhabis. And the line I heard from a lot of people was, President Bashar al-Assad has offered an amnesty, and anyone who wants to identify as Syrian is welcome to put down their weapons and come back in from the cold. Anyone who doesn't is a terrorist, and there's not really room for reconciliation. The idea in this is, I guess, government policy as well as sort of emotional reality for a lot of Syrians is that if someone's still fighting the regime today, then they're better off dead rather than trying to reintegrate them into a future Syria.

MCEVERS: And so what then has been the reaction in these pro-government areas to the Russian air campaign that started in Syria last week?

CAMBANIS: Well, so this is an exhausting country in the fifth year of war. It has suffered lots of dead soldiers fighting in the war and then a huge exodus of middle-class and also working-class people who have emigrated to Europe on inflatable rafts the summer. So this is an economy and a government that's sort of living day-to-day on borrowed time, on borrowed money. So when the Russian bombs started falling last Wednesday, almost everyone I spoke to was less euphoric than relieved.

The idea was, that I heard voiced by almost everyone I spoke to, was that maybe this could be the beginning of the end. And after years and years of a stalemate in which the regime has steadily lost territory, pushed back to a third of the country, that maybe the Russians would sort of, like mythic super soldiers, come in and catalyze a real renaissance in the fortunes of the government and, you know, by bombing from the air and adding some kind of extra ingredient, enable the Syrian soldiers who've had so much trouble on the ground to finally turn things in the direction and recapture and consolidate control.

MCEVERS: You've been in Syria before this war started, and now you've just gotten back from there again. How is it different?

CAMBANIS: I mean, the last time I went to Syria was years before the war started, and in some ways, it's completely unrecognizable. In downtown Damascus at night, I'd go through checkpoints every 100 or 200 yards. Sitting in comfortable cafes in pro-regime neighborhoods like Mazzeh, you can hear the thud of outgoing artillery, and you can hear barrel bombings dropping on the nearby suburb of Darayya. And you can see, from the way people react, whether they are thinking with grief and sympathy of the civilians who are on the receiving ends of those barrel bombs or who are cheering for them. And it feels like a city under martial law, which it is. And it feels like city where, day to day, whether it's electricity or water or manpower, the people in the city are not sure whether they'll have everything they need to get by from one day to the next.

MCEVERS: Thanassis Cambanis is an analyst with a think tank The Century Foundation, and he joined us from Beirut. Thanks so much.

CAMBANIS: Good to talk to you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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