Syrian Rebels Gain Control Of Growing Area
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The United Nations Refugee Agency says tens of thousands of people have fled as the fighting intensifies and Syrian rebels have reportedly taken control of a key border crossing with Turkey. In Damascus, residents are desperately seeking shelter from the violence that has penetrated the capital. We'll have more on the situation in Damascus after this report.
CORNISH: NPR's Kelly McEvers has just completed a weeklong trip in Syria. She was traveling with rebels. As she witnessed, while the Syrian government still controls most of the cities, rural areas around these cities are increasingly coming under rebel control. Kelly joins us now from Antakya, Turkey. And, Kelly, describe where you were in Syria and what the situation was like there.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: I was in a tiny corner of Syria, northwest Syria, just a few miles inside the Turkish border, traveling around a handful of towns and villages that are basically now completely under rebel control. The last time I was with the rebels was back in November. At that time, you know, the rebels would control, say, a piece of a farm or a stretch of road. You know, now it's entire villages. I was at a rebel hospital. I was at a police station that had been taken over by rebels. I was on a stretch of highway that had been controlled by rebels, with rebel checkpoints. I was even at a rebel ice cream parlor in a rebel-controlled town eating ice cream. So, that just shows you kind of the freedom that they enjoy in this part of Syria. Part of it they think is because they've got Turkey just right next door to kind of offer them a sort of protection. But they themselves have fought hard in some of these towns and villages to gain and sort of make a kind of buffer zone for themselves, one that the international community so far has been unable to do for them.
CORNISH: And, Kelly, what about these reports that Syrian rebels gained control of a border town today?
MCEVERS: Right. This is the town of Bab al Hawa. I was just very close to there just today before I left Syria. I just actually finished talking to a rebel commander who told me that they don't control the entire town but they do control the part that's right along the border. What's interesting about this town or any of the towns they say they control is that, you know, they may control it now, they may control part of it now but then the regime may come right back and control it again the next day. Why? Because the regime has tanks. The regime's army has much heavier weapons than the rebels do. The rebels are operating with, you know, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. So, despite, you know, the fact that we know that there's this kind of swath of area that's controlled by the rebels, it's kind of an organism. It's always sort of growing and moving and changing.
CORNISH: So, is there the sense that the rebels are actually gaining momentum?
MCEVERS: You know, it's hard to say. I mean, again, there's so much of these cat and mouse battles going back and forth. I mean, there's another town on the border that while I was there, in the week that I was there, changed hands four times - regime, rebels, regime, rebels - you know, sort of back and forth. And you didn't get a sense that the rebels were really organized, that they had sort of a grand strategy here. It was just sort of like, oh yeah, we lost it? Well, we're going to take it back. What we are seeing though is they are getting more weapons and that has given them some momentum. Mostly, again, these rifles and much-needed ammunition for these rifles and these rocket-propelled grenades that they do use against tanks. They say that they're being provided by Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and that the United States is sort of helping coordinate this weapons program. So, there's a sense that, yes, they've managed to at least take this territory and that's something more than they had before. But, you know, almost to a man they all told me that more could be done. More weapons could be sent in. More coordination, like you saw in Libya, with NATO coordinators helping the rebels there.
CORNISH: Kelly, this isn't the first time that you've spent time with the rebel groups. Give us a better sense of who they are, what it was like.
MCEVERS: They're loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, the (foreign language spoken), you know, the army of freedom, basically. And some of them are defected soldiers, people who have, you know, left the army. Most of them are civilians - carpenters, government employees, judges, people who live in these towns where there have been protests and the regime has responded to the protests by killing civilians, people who decided they just couldn't take it anymore and they wanted to pick up arms and fight. Well, what do you do next? Who's your leader? You know, how do you organize yourself? I think these are still questions they're working out. Most of them are organized under sort of personalities, you know, the big guy in town - the guy who's got a lot of money, the guy who can afford to buy guns and pass them around, the guy who people are going to listen to. So, the big questions, I think, for the West or anybody who's thinking about helping these rebels is, well, how are they coordinated? Do they answer to anyone? I think the answer is no. I mean, it's just a lot of little local militias that do help each other out but at the same time, act very independently.
CORNISH: NPR's Kelly McEvers. Thank you, Kelly.
MCEVERS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.