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Violence In Syria's Capital Escalates, Along With Refugee Crisis


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The numbers from Syria can leave you numb: nearly 700,000 refugees now in neighboring countries, and the U.N. says their numbers grow by 5,000 every day, maybe two million internally displaced, 60,000 dead again according to the U.N., and that estimate came before the most recent intensification of combat in and around Damascus.

The civil war also draws in players from the outside: militia fighters from Lebanon, al-Qaida in Iraq, Iranian advisors, money men from the Persian Gulf and almost certainly Israeli jets. Today: an update from two of Syria's borders. Later in the program we want to hear your thoughts on the legacy of Pope Benedict who announced plans to resign at the end of this month. You can email us now, if you'd like. The address is

But first, Andrew Tabler joins us by phone from Beirut. He's a senior fellow at the Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, and he focuses on Syria and U.S. policy, and it's good to have you back with us. And we're having some difficulties with the connection to Beirut. And in the meantime instead we'll go to NPR's Deborah Amos, who's with us from Antakya on the Turkish border with Syria. Deb, always good to have you with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Neal, very nice to be here.

CONAN: And this morning you witnessed an explosion along the border, what might be an ominous development.

AMOS: I did indeed, Neal. We had just crossed back in from Syria. We were at passport control. We had stopped to interview Syrians who were coming in to Turkey, many of them because they were fleeing bombing further in the country. And I thought that we were safe. We were just about to hand in our passports, and there was a loud, loud, loud explosion.

People panicked, ran past - when I turned around, I could see that the place we had just been, there were scorched cars, there were body parts, people wounded, and it took a couple of minutes for everybody to realize what had happened.

The reporting now is that it was a car bomb on the border. Turkish authorities say there were Syrian plates on that car. Thirteen people were killed, three of them Turks, 28 wounded. It is very unusual for a car bomb right on the border with Turkey. This is an ominous development.

CONAN: Any idea who may have been responsible?

AMOS: No, nothing like that at all tonight, and I think the Turks have not said who they think is responsible. But it was shocking in this country. It was the lead of the news all day long. There were more than a dozen ambulances on the border. Because we were witnesses, there were some in the police who wanted to talk to us about did we see anything, did somebody detonate the car.

We were about 100 feet away from the explosion protected by the passport control buildings. What is really tragic is what happens in one of these long passport lines is the father of the family brings all the passports out, comes to the window while the family sits in the car. So you saw people so panicked because they were OK, they were standing where we were, they had no idea what had happened to their families, who were sitting in parked cars on the other side of the border where the explosion had happened.

CONAN: Well, obviously we'll await developments there, but, you know, people taking precautions against missiles coming from Syria, car bombs are another thing.

AMOS: Indeed, you know, the Patriot missiles do nothing against car bombs on the border. But there has been quite a dramatic uptick in the flow of refugees coming into Turkey, mostly from central Syria: Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. There has been such a fierce bombing campaign by the Syrian government in those areas that people are coming through legal and illegal ways into the Turkish border towns.

And we saw that today, where you find 400 people in a wedding hall in a small town on the Turkish border because there's no place for them to go.

CONAN: You've just returned to that area after some time away. Is that the big change?

AMOS: It is the big change that there are so many people crossing. The second big change, Neal, is that the United Nations has struck an agreement with the Syrian government and with the Syria opposition coalition to allow what's called cross-line aid. And what that means that U.N. trucks can come into rebel areas. It is very complex. It is extremely inefficient. What the government in Syria has not allowed is cross-border. So in trips that could take five minutes from the Turkish border into big camps of displaced people, instead the Syrian government requires that the trucks drive up from Damascus, and the Syrian coalition provides security when they come into the rebel areas.

It is terribly inefficient. There has been one convoy that has made it through. There's supposed to be one tomorrow, but my guess is that this car bomb is probably going to stall that delivery to all of these displaced people who are desperate for tents and blankets and food.

CONAN: Winter there obviously just as much as it is here, and people are suffering on both sides of the border. Let me ask you, though, about developments in and around Damascus, where we hear reports that rebel forces are creeping ever closer to the ring road that encircles the city and in some places are through it.

AMOS: We hear the same reports that you do, Neal. At the same time there has been some interesting movement on the negotiation front. There was a Syrian minister who said that he was willing to meet coalition leaders. And what struck me as I was reading the accounts of the statements today, as you said, I have been in touch with rebel commanders who, just a few weeks ago, said I'll see you in Damascus within weeks.

He said they are now calling me and saying it is tougher than we thought. We are not getting support from Western allies. We are not getting the support we thought we were going to get from the Gulf. It is taking us longer. And you get the idea that both sides are sizing each other up and debating internally whether a negotiated settlement is what they want.

There is by no means any kind of agreement on that, but you're seeing little statements that indicate that it is certainly within the thought process of both some parts of the regime, certainly not President Bashar al-Assad, and some parts of the opposition.

CONAN: And the question being does anybody other than Bashar al-Assad speak for the government, and does anybody at all speak with one voice for the opposition?

AMOS: Well, that is the problem, Neal. And so when you see these statements, you can see that there are those who want to have a negotiated settlement. That is certainly the favored outcome of almost all the great powers who are involved in this - Washington, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, London - because a collapse of the government is simply a recipe for chaos in Syria.

However, whether that can be carried out, whether the capitals, the Western capitals, whether Moscow, whether Iran, whether all of these countries can agree on a negotiated settlement is another matter indeed.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. We've re-established contact with Andrew Tabler, who's with us from Beirut, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, where he focuses on Syria and U.S. policy, and nice to have you back on the program today.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.

CONAN: And as you look at those reports that we just mentioned, the fighting from Damascus, what forces are engaged there? And has something important changed?

TABLER: Yeah, I think that it has. I mean, you have a lot of forces engaged from Damascus all over the country. That's definitely the big change in the last few months is the projection of the Free Syrian Army and the Free Army forces towards Damascus. So that's, you know, that's something new.

Exactly where the whole conflict is going and what the regime's collapse exactly looks like is not clear. So that has a lot of people sort of scratching their heads in terms of who will take over in these areas. Presumably it's going to be armed groups. They're going to have a lot of civilian groups, with whom the U.S. has a lot of contact, having some influence, but the armed groups overall are going to be the ones who are calling the shots in those areas.

Now the recent events inside of Syria with the taking of the High Dam and a number of other areas, you know, shows that the Assad regime is being pushed out of the east and out of the north of the country towards the Syrian coast and towards the west.

So collapse in Syria looks generally like that as of now, if you want to call it a collapse.

CONAN: If you want to call it a collapse. The regime seems still very hardly - very hard-set there in Damascus and certainly willing to fight for the capital.

TABLER: They are, and they are able to leash out with lethal force to try and assert themselves in those areas. It is not just through shelling. It's not just through fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, but also through the use of SCUD missiles, other surface-to-surface missiles and also the loading of chemical weapons into bombs in or near Syrian airfields.

So, you know, we've gone up the escalation chain in that regard. Still the regime holds on, still the opposition fights on. So I don't see an end in sight anytime soon, and I think that the spillover effect from this in terms of the humanitarian aspects, in terms of the refugees, in terms of the internally displaced people, will only go up.

CONAN: More on that in just a minute, but very quickly, are you seeing signs of exhaustion on either side?

TABLER: No I don't. I think both sides are set to fight on. They're backed by various sides. It's larger than just the Syrian conflict. I think it involves lots of folks in the region, lots of different countries in the region, and we'll have to watch them battle it out.

Definitely, though, the humanitarian aspect is a huge, heavy burden on both the regime's position, as well as the opposition's position going forward.

CONAN: When we come back, more with Deb Amos and Andrew Tabler on the situation in Syria. We'll also talk about Israel's airstrike, the one everybody's talking about a couple of weeks ago, and whether it might be the first of a series. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. An Israeli airstrike in Syria at the end of January has all but been confirmed by Israel. Western and Syrian officials both reported it, but details about the target, what was hit and where remain sparse. It's similarly tough to pin down a specific motive for the attack.

A Lebanese official says the aircraft targeted a truck carrying weapons. Syria's U.N. ambassador says that contention holds, quote, "no truth." The Syrian army maintains the airstrike hit a scientific research center near Damascus. Whatever the answer is, it's the first time Israelis struck inside Syria since 2007.

NPR's Deb Amos and Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, join us from the region. Deb Amos is in Turkey, on the Syrian border. Andrew joins us from Beirut. Deb Amos, to get back to the humanitarian situation, in the early days, when refugees first started coming across from Syria, there were very well-stocked refugee camps ready for them. What's the situation for them now?

AMOS: The situation now is, for one thing, I'm not altogether convinced that we actually know what the numbers are, and it may be that the United Nations doesn't either. The official number is somewhere around 3.5 million internally displaced. It turns out that that number primarily comes from the regime's count, that the rebel-held areas doesn't - hasn't really done a count on how many.

It is possible that we have double the number of internally displaced inside the country now at a time where we are two years in to a revolution where water is one-third what it was in pre-war conditions. So you are having a massive increase in what's called dirty water diseases, which is particularly a problem for the very young and the very old.

You have - this comes at a time when the regime has specifically bombed bakeries, and so increasingly you have a huge population of displaced people with no resources at all and very little way to get what they need to be able to survive. There are many towns that have no electricity, no water and very little food.

I think you can say the same thing about the numbers of people who are leaving the country. The official number on Friday, 5,000 a day, but what I saw even on the Turkish border is how many people were coming in illegally because they wanted to get away from this bombing.

So I think it's quite possible we don't really know the scope of this problem, but it's worse than the official numbers.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, the Turkish border better organized, I would say, than the Lebanese border, and you also have reports that there's traffic both ways: militia going to support various elements in Syria and then coming back into Lebanon.

TABLER: That's right. I think the Lebanese front is a very active one. The border there is relatively sealed in many areas, but the provision of assistance across the border is kind of, I would say, politicized or instrumentalized by various factions. So it's a little bit different than the Turkish side.

Going forward, I think the fact is that the basis of a government in Lebanon is Hezbollah. Hezbollah backs the Syrian regime. And therefore, Lebanon will sort of serve as a soft underbelly of whatever rump regime, and what I mean by rump regime here, I mean like a smaller part of the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, goes forward, and with it will come all the things and all the political liabilities that go with that.

As you know, Lebanon is a constellation of different factions, including the Sunnis, Shia, Christians and so on. And while the risk going forward, a lot of risk will spill over. I'm not exactly sure how Lebanon will be able to sort of, you know, stay on the sidelines of all of this is but is increased worry for not only for, you know, people here in the region, I've been speaking for the last couple of days, but also for officials in the U.S., as well.

CONAN: There was a report today in the Washington Post that Hezbollah there in Lebanon and its international sponsor, Iran, are both working to reorganize Syrian militia in part to support President Assad's forces but also in part to provide them with a viable plan B should the Assad regime collapse.

TABLER: That's right. I think that Hezbollah is very involved in carving out what's called fear of the popular army, the Jaysh al-Shabi. Hezbollah and Iran are directly involved in propping up aspects of the Assad regime. There is not an alternative on the opposition side.

There is some support from Qatari, Saudi and Turkish sources for the opposition, but nothing is organized. And I think that going forward we can see the Iranians, through Hezbollah, being increasingly involved in what goes on in Syria.

CONAN: And Deb Amos, you were saying earlier that the opposition forces were saying, at least some, we're not getting the support that we thought we would, not just from the West but from suppliers like the Gulf states, Qatar.

AMOS: That is certainly true. And you hear it again and again, that they thought that if they organized themselves into a political coalition. And, you know, Americans were in the room when that happened, in Qatar, they went to Morocco, 100 nations supported them, and I think that many of them believed that that was the key to support, humanitarian support, maybe even military support.

Now there have been all of these revelations that there was a discussion within the American administration, the president decided against the advice of his advisors, which is, you know, his right to do, and has decided that there will be no arming of the Syrian opposition, and they also complained that the arms are slowing down from the Saudis, from the Qatari and from the Turks.

Now on the inside, they are able to supply themselves by the military bases that they take. And I'm told that some of the fighting that is happening in Palmyra, which is east of Damascus, is happening because they have discovered that there is an arms cache there. And so these rebels are going after places where they know there are weapons.

There are reports today that the rebels are using tanks against the Syrian regime, and those tanks were taken from the Syrian army. So that is how the arming is going.

CONAN: And those tanks presumably being driven by former members of the Syrian army.

AMOS: Well former members or, you know, guys who used to know how to drive a tractor. I think that we can't really say for certain who is driving those tanks. But what we know is that they are able to take weapons away and consistently able to take weapons away, and arm themselves.

It's a little harder on the humanitarian side. The Syrian coalition had believed that humanitarian aid would come through them. And so this would give them increased legitimacy on the ground. That has not happened. They are in the meetings with donors who are giving aid, but it is not going through the coalition, and they are very bitter about that because they do feel that if they were able to move aid into the country that they would be able to build more grassroots support.

This is the argument that we heard very early on about the rebels. The rebels will adopt the ideology they need to adopt to get the arms, and if it's, you know, radical ideology that is bringing in arms, they will grow their beards and become that. And now we're hearing the same argument on the side of humanitarian aid.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, there are - I think everybody recognizes the element of truth in what Deborah Amos is reporting, a large element in what Deborah Amos is reporting. That's not to deny, however, that there are people there who would be radicals no matter what.

TABLER: That's true. We have Salafists. We have some other extremists who are involved. I don't think they represent the majority of the opposition but an increasing part of it. So it's a little bit tricky. How do you support the Syrian opposition in their legitimate struggle to bring down the Assad regime, at the same time, do you maintain U.S. national security interests? The answer is by being more involved. The Obama administration has refrained from doing that, and I think this has been a major mistake.

I don't understand why so much reticence has been sort of paid in a policy sense to supporting the armed opposition when so many people and so many factions within it actually were begging the United States for support. It's very strange. I understand hedging, trying not to give assistance to those who are extremists, but by and large, they were all I think U.S. interests are waning in the Levant. And with it, it's very difficult for the United States to be able to shape the outcome that's going on there in the foreseeable future.

CONAN: Could this change? We know that President Obama is headed to the region later this month.

TABLER: That's correct. He's headed to the region. He's going to be going to Israel. The Israelis are very worried. It's not just about Iran anymore. That's interesting. They're very worried about what's going on across the border because they see a failed state. They see a failed state which is a haven for terrorists, and they see a zone in which humanitarian suffering works against U.S. interests. The question is at this point, what can the United States do? And the answer is to support different groups with our - which are (unintelligible) inside the country.

Can it pick individual groups as easily as it could have a year ago? No. You are working from behind, from a different situation, and that's very worrying. And I think from an American standpoint, we're going to be losing the Levant going forward at least for the next few months unless there's a radical change in policy, which I don't see anytime soon.

CONAN: And the reporting from Washington is there is no intention on the president's part to rethink that policy or change it, at least at the moment.

TABLER: That's right. I think that the Obama administration continues to hedge. That's fine. It's not about leverage. You can't directly get results from U.S. involvement. Can you shape an outcome? Yes, you can. But you have to make that decision. You have to be able to have the kind of relations with groups inside Syria who are calling the shots in different areas of the country. The United States so far has (unintelligible) to do so. So I think the ability of the United States to shape the outcome there is going down.

Whether that continues into the future, I don't know. I think that everyone now in Washington realizes this conflict will go on for a decade long or longer. The question is in what form and how to shape it.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, he focuses on Syria and U.S. policy. Also with us is NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Deborah, what might change that calculation? Are there - we've heard about redlines in terms of the use of chemical weapons. We've heard that the Israelis would be - would take action. Indeed, they may have taken action at the prospect of seeing advanced anti-aircraft technology being transferred from the Syrian armed forces to Hezbollah. What might change the calculation?

AMOS: It's hard to see what might change that calculation. There was a report in the American media this week that said that for the Israelis this may not be only one attack if weapons are moved; is that they are looking very carefully on what's happening and may strike again. I think that the fact that there was no response from either the Iranians who just a day earlier had said an attack on Syria is an attack on us, you know, is certainly important to the way that the Israelis will calculate how to take care of their own interest.

It may in fact be the humanitarian situation that could be somewhat of a game changer. If these numbers go up in the way that they appear to be now, you are going to have a burden on all of the neighbors that is unsustainable. This is becoming a catastrophic crisis, humanitarian-wise. And as the bombing continues against Aleppo, against Hama, against the suburbs in Damascus, you've got more and more families who have simply no resources left, so many of them said, you know, we'll stay in our country.

This is where we want to be. But they simply cannot survive. So if we are now at 5,000 leaving a day, if that number begins to go up, that may be sort of a game changer in terms of American policy. I know that the Americans very much want to say that, you know, we are giving more than any other nation. And I supposed by the numbers that may be true. But we are dealing with numbers that are unimaginable. I have not seen a refugee crisis like this. Much of it is being sustained actually by Syrians abroad. They're the ones who are raising the money.

But this takes governments to sort out. And I think, right now, you're going to see more and more pressure to get Bashar al-Assad to agree to cross-border humanitarian aid coming in from Turkey because what is happening now is completely inefficient. It's just not going to work. And that is another game-changer as well. So there's a couple of places where you see some small changes. But in terms of overall strategy, I actually don't see much change.

CONAN: And the place we have not mentioned - we just have a - less than a minute left, but I did want to ask you, Deb, about Jordan where, again, this is not the most stable situation in the world.

AMOS: No. And actually, if you look at the numbers, Jordan has more Syrian refugees than any other. And I think that there - those camps, hundred thousands, these are, you know, cities that are springing up, and people are angry and they aren't getting the aid they need. If those numbers go up, it is really hard to think how Jordan manages this kind of crisis internally. So that's why I say, you know, watch the humanitarian angle of this story because all the neighbors know that this big of a population is ultimately destabilizing.

CONAN: NPR correspondent, Deborah Amos, thanks so much for your time today. And good luck today.

AMOS: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, thanks very much for being with us today from Beirut.

TABLER: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll be back after a short break to reflect on Pope Benedict XVI's legacy. In a surprise announcement he declared today, he plans to resign at the end of the month. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.