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A Renewed Push To End Violence In Syria


United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan visited Syria this week to try to negotiate a ceasefire, but neither the government nor the opposition agreed to talk. Now the Arab League hopes the U.N. Security Council will consider a proposal that lays out a procedure for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power. Russia and China vetoed a similar plan earlier. All the while violence continues in many parts of the country. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers joins us now from Beirut, Lebanon. Kelly, nice to have you back.


CONAN: And NPR foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon joins us from Istanbul in Turkey. Peter, good to have you back. And apparently we're having problems with Peter's line there on the phone from Istanbul. Kelly McEvers, let's start with you. And the - we'll get to the diplomacy and where that may lead in just a minute. But we have to focus on the violence. And Dara'a, where all this started almost a year ago, seems to be the focus again today.

MCEVERS: Right. It seems that the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have turned their attention to the southern city of Dara'a. Like you said, this is where the Syrian uprising basically began a year ago when a few youngsters, who had scrolled some graffiti on a wall at a school, were later detained and allegedly tortured, and people went out to protest that detention. Four people were shot at a protest and killed, and that's really what started this whole thing. Of course it's turned into something very different now. You've got rebels picking up - defecting, you know, from the Syrian army. You've got civilians picking up arms.

In some places, you know, peaceful protests continue. But in many places, it's an armed conflict. So in places like Dara'a, you have neighborhoods where rebels try to control certain areas, and the army comes in and fights back. Just before coming to Dara'a today, Syrian troops basically took over - retook over the city of Idlib in the north of Syria.

CONAN: And Peter Kenyon, who's with us now on the line from Istanbul, in Northern Syria, Idlib, that had been a place where rebels and the communities had taken control or tried to take control of their situation, and that was put - crushed, I think, is probably the right word.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, it was very similar to what we saw in Homs in the center part of the country, Neal. We saw the tanks come very methodically, amassing around the city and in villages around the Idlib City, which is the capital of Idlib Province in the north up against Turkey. And then we saw the shelling begin. We saw snipers on high buildings and a siege of sorts, although this was much faster than the one in Homs. The people there had seen it coming. Many civilians tried to get away. They've been having serious problems in that regard. The - there have been mines laid along both this border with Turkey and the border with Lebanon.

And there have been army deployments and checkpoints to try and block people. We're hearing stories of men being taken at checkpoints and never seen again or their bodies turn up. Even so, the numbers flowing into Turkey, into the Hatay Province in Southern Turkey, have gone up from dozens per day to sometimes a hundred or more each day.

CONAN: Let me go back and ask you about something you just mentioned, Peter. Mines - anti-personnel mines laid on evacuation routes?

KENYON: Yes. Those are the reports we're getting. Human Rights Watch has been getting the same report. They issued a condemnation recently of that. These are older mines, we're told. They are almost impossible - well, they're not impossible, but they're not easy to defuse. And they are classified, of course, as an indiscriminate weapon that can do a lot of civilian damage. And these have been laid in the mountainous trails and pathways between Northern Syria and Southern Turkey, and also, we're told, along the pathways towards the escape route from Central Syria out towards Lebanon.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, there in Beirut, can you confirm that?

MCEVERS: Yes. We've heard from people crossing. We've spoken to injured people, definitely a young man who stepped on a mine as, he says, he was taking injured people across the border and into Lebanon. This is just one of the ways that the regime has tried to - the Syrian regime has tried to stop folks from coming over. They claimed they're trying to stop fighters from leaving the country, you know, and regrouping.

It's interesting. I just got back from a reporting trip to Jordan. That's the one country that border Syria where, while the Syrians are trying to block people from coming, the Jordanians are actually really helping and welcoming people. So what you've seen in the last of couple of days and what we've been told, is that folks are coming from all the way in the north of Syria, all the way down to the south of Syria and crossing into Jordan because they feel like that's the place where they'll see this kind of safe passage that they need.

CONAN: Peter Kenyon, Turkey has well-established refugee camps by this time and in southern parts of that country. For Syrian refugees, incidents like what we saw in Idlib today have to be inflaming attitudes. And again, we're hearing about two Turkish journalists who are reported missing in Idlib.

KENYON: Yes, that report - the two magazine journalists, young man, judging from the pictures, they reported to their superiors of their magazine that they had reached Idlib and that apparently it's been at least four days since they've been heard from. We don't know if anything has happened to them but certainly concern is growing.

As far as the camps, Turkey has, as you alluded to, has quite a bit of experience in building these camps. They tend to do it very well. In the '90s, they took huge numbers of people in an earlier crisis. And the number that I last heard was about 13,000, but then you have to add several thousand on top of that, people living in private homes, because this part of Turkey used to be Syria, up until about 1938, '39. And there's a lot of families, you know, split on both sides of border, so there's a lot of informal housing and shelter being given as well. But the Turkish officials I'm speaking with say they are actively preparing for a larger influx, assuming more people can get across with all the difficulties they're facing.

CONAN: And we're hearing from international sources, especially from Saudi Arabia, that it is now time to start arming the rebels in Syria. Is there any indication if they're going to do that? Of course, Saudi Arabia, not an immediate neighbor of Syria. It will have to be done in one of these camps, in Jordan or in Turkey, in Iraq or in Lebanon. Peter Kenyon, first, is there any indication that the Turks are willing to start arming the rebels?

KENYON: No official indication at all. There have some WikiLeaks cables that basically add up to some speculation that they might be willing to do that. Certainly, it is a very long and hard to defend border, mountainous terrains, several hundred miles long. The possibility for physically doing it if the will were there is certainly there.

The risks for Turkey are very high though. I mean, the reason they got in big fights with Syria in the 1990s were because the regime in Damascus, angry at Turkish water policies, I believe, had ratcheted up their support for the PKK, these Kurdish separatist militants who are present in Syria, in Northern Iraq and, of course, in southern Turkey. And so they have to worry about that flaring up if they are seen as a hostile adversary by Damascus. And there are all kinds of regional implications, many of which involve Iran, Syria's largest ally.

CONAN: The Euphrates, probably the best-known river that rises in Turkey and flow through part of Syria, but not the only one. The same question to you then, Kelly McEvers. In Lebanon, is there any indication that some of the Saudi or outside aid might flow through there, or - as you just came back from Jordan?

MCEVERS: We took that question recently directly to the source, you know, the gun runners, the guys who would be providing these weapons and these ammunitions. And their answer is a pretty resounding no, that up to this point, the talk has been just that, talk. There's been a lot of, you know, sort of bluster coming from the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, and also Qatar about - and even, you know, some talk among, you know, U.S. officials over at least whether or not this was an option. And I think that the answer, so far, has been no.

The trickle of weapons has been just that, just a trickle coming in probably more so - more weapons coming in from Lebanon than anywhere else, but still it's not very many. I mean, what you saw in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs that Peter was talking about that fell to the Syrian Army and what you saw in Idlib and probably what you're seeing in Daraa now, is that the rebels simply, I mean, one of the reasons that they pulled back, one of the reasons they lost these areas is they simply ran out of ammunition. They ran out of guns. They didn't have enough left to fight with. So that's been a real issue for the rebels, and they've continued their call, you know, to be armed, but so far no one has answered that call.

CONAN: And that brings us to the international arena, more directly. And, Peter Kenyon, in Istanbul we mentioned that U.N. envoy Kofi Annan was unsuccessful in Syria, yet he continues to sound pretty optimistic.

KENYON: He does. And apparently, he's had a response, and there will be some further communications, I'm told. There is some speculation, nothing confirmed yet, that perhaps these escalated series of assaults - first in Homs and then in Idlib, now in Daraa - might be some kind of a lead up to some kind of ceasefire, at least an easing of the military assault on the theory that he - the Assad regime would want to clean up as much of its adversaries as it can, you know, create the most physical advantage that it can before laying down its weapons, even temporarily. Now, that is just speculation at this point. There's been no announcement of anything like that, but that is a possibility. Kofi Annan is a very experienced diplomat. He doesn't toss around these phrases lightly, but at this point, we have to wait for some evidence.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, we've heard that, I have to say, dozens of times from the Syrians in the past year: give us a few more days, a few more weeks. We'll clear this up, and it'll all be over.

MCEVERS: Right. That's what you hear the activists say. I mean, they say all of this diplomatic maneuvering, the activists and the opposition groups inside Syria, that this diplomatic maneuvering, what, just buys more time for more killing. I mean, it is hard to imagine the regime at this point. The regime basically having the upper hand, you know, being willing to give up - to give any ground. I mean, we spoke to some analysts today saying that, look, why should the regime enter any kind of ceasefire, or talk about any kind of political transition, when it has gained so, you know, regained so much control, especially from the areas that have been fighting back with arms?

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from Beirut. Also with us on the phone from Istanbul, Peter Kenyon, NPR foreign correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And the Arab League is now prepared to go back to the United Nations Security Council with another plan that provides a mechanism under which the president, Bashar al-Assad, could step aside. The vice president, again, would take control of the country, at least for the time being, until talks could be held with the opposition. Peter Kenyon, is anybody giving their - any better prospects to this plan the second time around after Russia and China vetoed it the last time?

KENYON: Well, I think you've touched on the real key. What kind of benefit of the doubt is Russia giving it, in particular, and, to some extent, China as well? Sergey Lavrov, the comments in recent days have been pretty much what we've been hearing before that the previous resolutions and presumably this one are unbalanced in Russia's views, primarily because they presume some kind of regime change or presume that Bashar al-Assad would step down from power. That is unacceptable, so far, to the Russians. They say that in order to even the playing field now, in their view, the west and the countries that have recognized the SNC, the Syrian National Council, should withdraw that support and everyone should start fresh.

This doesn't seem to be acceptable to the West, of course, so we still seem to have a very wide gap on the diplomatic end of things. And that is one reason, as Kelly was saying earlier, that the Assad regime really doesn't feel a lot of pressure to capitulate. It remains to be seen if there is some new arrangement that we haven't been hearing much about in public on the table. And if that is under serious discussion, then we'll just have to wait for that to play out.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, there are also, as you know, proposals for all kinds of unilateral, multilateral actions, humanitarian corridors, safe areas, all the way to intervention and no-fly zones. None of these would be easy. We think of the example of Libya. It took, what, 10 days, two weeks for NATO, led by the United States, to take down the Libyan air defense system. And, by all accounts, the Syrian system is in a different league.

MCEVERS: Right. I think, you know, for months we heard from Syrian protestors and then from - again from these armed civilians and these defectors. You know, they thought - the thought was, if we pick up arms and we start fighting back, then at some point, somebody will come in and impose a no-fly zone. And if that happens, then we'll see mass defections and things will fall as quickly as Libya. We - it's very clear now that that is not the case. And one of the many reasons for that is that it's just not as easy in Syria to take out the air defense systems, to establish control of certain areas as it was in Libya.

I mean, and we saw several U.S. officials testify to this effect in Washington last week, that even in doing something as, you know, seemingly easy as establishing a safe zone or humanitarian corridor would actually take weeks and thousands of ground troops. This is something that very few countries who align themselves with the Syrian opposition want to get into. I mean, when you're talking about a kind of intervention that's going to stem the violence that's already on the ground, I think what the fear is, is that anything on the table right now would only create more violence.

CONAN: And, Peter Kenyon, that creates the specter of either a simmering civil war, a chaotic revolution or, at best, a pariah state whose people cow in fear of the government.

KENYON: Well, all of those and more. I mean, it could also have regional implications, which is why as analysts will tell you all day long and all night long, Syria is not Libya. I mean, you've got Iran involved. You've got - that brings Hezbollah into play, which brings Israel into play. I mean, the neighborhood is much more volatile, much more fragile and much easier to disrupt than that part of North Africa where NATO went in with a very thorough bombing campaign.

CONAN: And yet, Kelly McEvers, that leaves us with the prospect of standing by and doing nothing.

MCEVERS: Right. As we see your reports coming out of places like Homs, of gruesome massacres, very difficult to verify because it's impossible for us to get in and do the kind of reporting we would need to do to verify these, but, you know, it's hard to make up pictures of children who have been slaughtered. Now, who killed those children, exactly, and who those children are, it's, again, it's hard to say. But the reports that we're getting from Homs, and now also from Idlib and Daraa, is that after these neighborhoods are taken with, you know, heavy tank fire and shelling, that pro-government thugs, these militia men known as Shabiha, go into these neighborhoods and go house to house and take revenge against those people who stood against the government. So that's a very difficult thing for the international community to stand by and watch.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks for your time. Our thanks as well to Peter Kenyon. He was on the phone with us from Istanbul in Turkey. Kelly McEvers, based in Beirut. Tomorrow, after years in the doldrums, at least some sectors of the U.S. economy are looking up. We'll talk about that tomorrow in this hour. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.