Fighting In Syria Takes Harsh Human Toll
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Yesterday, United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to revive a peace plan that's so far failed to end the grim violence in that country. Opposition leaders say the dead now number more than 17,000. Syrians continue to flee to neighboring countries to escape assault by government forces, and rebels claim they now control parts of the country. NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos has been reporting on the violence and how it's changed lives from Syria. She joins us now from Antakya, a city in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. And, Deborah, always good to have you on the program. Thanks for the time.
And we're trying to connect with Deborah Amos who's with us by computer connection in Antakya, a city in southern Turkey where she's been reporting most recently on the refugee camps that have been set aside for thousands of Syrians who've fled across the border. Deb, are you there now?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I am. I am. The Internet is back up in this restaurant.
CONAN: Well, good. I meant to ask you, you're now reporting on refugees, but going back to your time in Syria, there was so long that at least parts of that country seemed like they were in a kind of bubble that this unrest, this uprising was going on elsewhere. Is that true anymore? Is there any part of Syria that's free from this?
AMOS: Oh, no, not anymore. And you really saw it. I saw it three weeks ago in the capital, and I've been reading accounts of Damascus, and there are firefights in the middle of the capital at night. There is no bubble in Syria anymore, not in the capital, not in Aleppo, which is the economic capital of Syria.
CONAN: And how is that changing people's lives? The war must be affecting everybody.
AMOS: Well, you really see it here. For one thing, there's two to 300 Syrians who cross the Turkish border every day, people who are feeling horrendous fighting in the middle of the country. There was a battle. The army retook a town, Khan Sheikhoun, in central Syria, took it from the rebels. It was a key rebel headquarters. And for the past couple of days, the army reportedly has been burning houses, arresting people. And so you see that flow here on the Turkish side.
There's at least 30 Syrians wounded who are brought through what people here call the medical passage. It's a part of the Turkish border where people are brought over in stretchers and cared for in Turkish hospitals and clinics along this border. So you really feel that this is a war that is going on, on the other side of the border here in Turkey, in southern Turkey.
CONAN: And if it's a war, how are the two sides doing?
AMOS: Well, you have people with AK-47s against tanks, so the rebels are holding the north of Syria and in some of the provinces in the countryside. And they're able to do that because they've become more organized, because there's been more weapons that are moving across the border and because Turkey has essentially set up a no-fly zone. It's unofficial, of course. But a few weeks ago, the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet over the Mediterranean, and since then, the Turks have changed their military posture.
They've brought anti-aircraft guns down to the border. They have said you bring a helicopter within five miles of our border, and we will shoot you down. And so now, Syrian army helicopters don't patrol the border anymore, don't have reconnaissance in rebel areas. So, certainly, up here in the north, rebels have done better, but in the central part of the country and further south, the army is still engaging in a punishing offensive. Some of those people get here. Some go to Jordan. Some get to Lebanon. But the civilians are moving out of these warzones.
CONAN: In the meantime, the Syrian economy must be in shambles as well.
AMOS: It is. You know, many people have said, oh, this is a regime that will collapse because of the economy. I have seen no evidence of that. Syrians have long known how to manage themselves under sanctions. This is not the first sanctions for the Syrian government.
On the other hand, there are many exile groups who are sending money to their families. And I've heard an estimate of 135 million a month that are going into Syria for a variety of things - weapons, one - but also simply to support people there. So, yes, the economy is failing. There's no doubt about that. But, you know, in the countryside, people grow their own food, and so they're doing OK. That is not the point.
I was at a hospital today, and, boy, do you see some pretty horrific wounds. And I had a doctor tell me that he believes that the government snipers are targeting spinal cords, targeting brains not to kill people, but to make sure that they have long-term disabilities. And you see that in the hospitals here: people who can no longer walk, no longer see, no longer have hands. These are horrific injuries, and it tells you something about the future of Syria. This is a civil war. This is a political situation that has a long, long life to get over.
CONAN: You've been to more than a few refugee camps in your time. How do these stack up?
AMOS: I was one - to one called Kilis on the border, and it is five-star. It is paid for by the Turkish government, and this one was built for 12,000 people. They live in containers. They're kind of like trailers. And it's six to a trailer, but they are big trailers. And here, there are banks. There are schools. There are outdoor markets. There are training classes for carpenters. There are Turkish languages classes for the kids.
What's so interesting about these - about these refugee camps is they really are the rear base for the rebels who are challenging the regime. They go back and forth across the border. Their wives and their children are safe in these camps, and they go in to fight. They come maybe once a week, once every 10 days. Turkish border guards look the other way when they come across. And so they come here and have a rest.
This is also the place where defected soldiers come and stay. So if you defect on the other side of the border, somebody in one of these refugee camps gets a call. And they'll come over and make sure that you get a rest and that you change sides easily. It is remarkable to watch here. I think when people first arrived, it was chaos on the border. People were afraid. But we're now into 16 months of an uprising, and you see real organization on this side of the border.
CONAN: Those are people, obviously, who made their choices. There are many inside Syria who are facing the conundrum. You need to choose sides at this point.
AMOS: I don't think there's very many people inside Syria who have not chosen a side by this point. For a long time and for many months, we talked about the grey people, those who said, I don't like the opposition. I don't like the revolution, and I don't like the regime. And so I'm going to sit on the fence and be part of the silent majority. As the revolution and the regime's brutal response has moved to the capital where people can see it, this is no longer the case. People now have taken sides, and that is what was so interesting for me to be in the capital.
Here is the other problem with this: We are moving more and more into this sectarian divide in Syria. Everybody here talks about it. Everybody is worried about it. They all say: This is not us. This is not how we were. But you have a government that is run by a minority sect, the Alawites. And you have other minorities who have always supported this government, because they felt that they wanted the protection of the majority Sunni Muslims.
Now, younger revolutionaries here will tell you that younger Christians, Alawites have joined the revolution, but the older generation has split down sectarian lines. And when we're talking about a civil war, Neal, in Syria, we're talking about a sectarian war. We're talking about people who are fighting each other because they belong to different sects.
CONAN: And we saw in Iraq just how ugly that can get, as neighborhoods that were - get torn apart in ethnic cleansing. People are forced to move.
AMOS: Yes. And you have seen some of that in Syria already. Now, people tell me that in the 1980s, especially 1982, when there was an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama and the Syrian army came and killed maybe 10 to 30,000 people, that in the years following that uprising, there was also an un-mixing, that people actually moved into neighborhoods where they were the majority. I talked to one young Syrian woman who grew up in the town of Homs, and she said, I thought that Syria was a majority Christian country, because everybody I saw in my neighborhood was a Christian.
And so people tell me now, it's happening again, that you don't see an Alawite-neighborhood with Sunnis in it anymore, and vice versa, that people are moving in a sectarian way. And it's very disturbing to Syrians, especially those in the capital who - it's - this is a capital where you see a church next to mosque, you know? And so, for years, there wasn't this kind of problem. And so I think that Syrians are very worried that this kind of violence and this response from the regime is tearing this country apart.
CONAN: And if it's become a sectarian war, if - that leaves everybody on all sides with everything to lose.
AMOS: It does. It also forces some politics, certainly, to enter what is happening here in southern Turkey. What you hear from the rebels is that the most religiously conservative, the Islamist forces among the rebels, are actually getting the most funding, especially from the Gulf. They have the most weapons. They have the most money. It's the Salafis, the most conservative group here, and the Muslim Brotherhood, also a conservative Islamist group, they are the most powerful - not so much inside, but you find that the rebels need the weapons. They need the money. And so they will say, yes, I'm for you. Yes, I am an Islamist. Yes, I will grow my beard. I, you know, I will do whatever it takes to get your weapons.
And so the concern here is that those groups may turn on each other as this conflict goes on. If there's no organization of the rebel forces, if anybody can fund anybody else who moves in with weapons who makes a great video - and that is how it works here, Neal. You have an operation, and you have a cameraman with you, because you have to put it up on YouTube so your funders can see that you are successful. And they all kind of sheepishly laugh about that, but they all do it.
CONAN: And so that's why there are so many videos of - well, now, more and more these days - of IEDs in Syria, the improvised explosive devices.
AMOS: You bet. And so many attacks on checkpoints where you don't tell the rebel commanders two miles away that you're going to do it. And they're the ones that are going to pay the price when the army just starts shooting indiscriminately. But what you're doing is you're shooting a video, because you have to show that you are a successful commander on the ground. It's really a little crazy.
AMOS: But you do get funding.
CONAN: And the other situation that we have, you mentioned the shoot-down of a Turkish reconnaissance jet. Is there tension on the border? Is there a feeling, one more, and this could turn into something really ugly with Turkey and Syria?
AMOS: The - it's - we are on a hair-trigger here at the border. There's no doubt about it. The Turks have made it very clear that if those helicopters come to the border, they will shoot them down. On the other hand, the Syrian president said in an interview in a Turkish newspaper: I am sorry that we shot down - I regret that we shot down a Turkish jet. And I'm sure that he is, because those helicopters have not come near the border since the Turks made their threat. So I think that both sides are prickly, but neither side wants to bring this to that level of conflict on the border.
AMOS: That is a whole different issue.
CONAN: More from Deborah Amos tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Deborah, thanks very much.
AMOS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos, with us from Antakya, Turkey. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.