Middle East
3:42 pm
Mon July 23, 2012

Syrian Rebels Growing More Confident In Rural Areas

Originally published on Tue July 24, 2012 3:43 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Syria's capital, Damascus, fighting between pro and anti-government forces eased somewhat today. But heavy fighting is still reported in the northern city of Aleppo. The government still has the upper hand in Syria's largest cities, but in rural areas the rebels hold large swaths of territory.

It's difficult and dangerous these days for reporters to get inside Syria. But NPR's Kelly McEvers was recently there. And because such reporting is so rare, we're hearing her stories all week on MORNING EDITION and then airing them again on our program each day.

Today, Kelly begins at a rebel way-station not far from the border with Turkey.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So here we are. It's sunset in the village of Atima. This is an old police station that clearly was, you know, part of the government at one point. The police basically just left and now the police station itself is a headquarters for the rebels. The flag on top of the police station is no longer the Syrian flag. It is the flag of the Syrian revolution. It's in tatters a bit, but it's there.

Inside the police station, Syrians line up to meet a local commander named Zaza. He sits at the only desk in the room. He's small. He wears camouflage pants and an ammo vest with a grenade on the right, a pistol on the left. His long hair and long beard are black and silver. He combs them a lot.

ZAZA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The people who come to see Zaza are either leaving Syria or coming in to Syria. They have to pass through this village on their way. One man's father just defected from the Syrian Army and escaped to Turkey. Now the rest of the family is asking Zaza's help to get out of Syria, for fear the regime will punish them.

People coming in could be anyone from journalists to medics to fighters to gunrunners. The village has been, quote-unquote, "free for many months now." The sense is that the Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere in the country to retake control here and that the Turkish military, perched just on the other side of the border, is providing unofficial cover. That plus the mountainous terrain and presence of other rebels groups nearby gives this village a confidence that it will remain in rebel hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: It was this confidence that sparked the rebels here to launch their first ever operation against the regime last week, on an army checkpoint just north of here. The regime's army fought back, though, as we hear in this video filmed at the scene. The rebels lost eight men and retreated.

Inside the rebel headquarters, the men waiting to talk to Zaza grill me about why the U.S. isn't doing more to help the rebels hold this territory and topple the regime of Syria president, Bashar al-Assad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We know you can't send troops, we know you can't enforce a no-fly zone, they say. But why not send more and better weapons? The rifles and rocket-propelled grenades we're getting from Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not enough, they say. Why not help us coordinate our operations, like NATO advisers did in Libya?

One resident later tells me he has seen two undercover Americans pass through here. He says one gave the rebels a couple of high-end sniper rifles, the other was interested in the types of helicopters used by the Syrian regime.

Later that night, I go to where the women of the village are sitting in mourning for one of the men lost in the checkpoint operation. It's the first time a rebel from here has died in a firefight.

This is his...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: His wife.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The man's young wife sits with a blank look on her face, her two-year-old son splayed on the floor, fitfully sleeping. When I ask for the dead man's name, his steely sister says it as if she wants the world to hear, and then she breaks down and says it again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

MCEVERS: A young girl who's volunteered to translate asks me the same question rebels asked in the police station. Why won't anybody help us? I tell her it's complicated. I say I don't speak for the U.S. government but I do know that many people don't want to see the U.S. get mired in another Iraq or Afghanistan. I feel like I'm saying something totally normal, but it shatters the girl. She starts to cry and can't stop. She eventually tells the other women in the room what I said.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The women stare at me. We won't forget this, the sister of the dead man says finally. When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.