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Syrian Forces Storm Rebellious Areas Near Damascus


Fighting in Syria has intensified within a few miles of the capital city. Damascus has remained under firm government control, but in the suburbs, the army has sent in tanks to retake areas that had been under the affective control of rebels. Activists inside Syria say more than 60 people have been killed in the past day. NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring the situation from Beirut. She's on the line. Hi Kelly.


INSKEEP: How did this fighting develop in the suburbs?

MCEVERS: Well, it's important to understand, I mean, what we're talking about when we say rebels and when we say control of these suburbs. These rebels, I mean, these are basically kind of a rag tag bunch of defected soldiers who've like walked off the army base with their rifle in their hands. And they've set up kind of checkpoints at some of these suburbs, you know, saying, look, we're here with our AK47s. We're going to protect protesters who are against the government, and you, you can't come in.

It's not like they've fought with the army and taken control of this territory. These aren't like the Libyan rebels, you know, who have access to larger munitions, bigger guns, artillery. These are smaller guys. So, I mean, in some sense, the army is still in control.

INSKEEP: Although what you're saying, the army and opposition now had not opposed their taking the streets here, but why would the army have allowed them to set up checkpoints and claim control of areas to begin with?

MCEVERS: There's a couple of ideas out there why the army is doing this. Most analysts here in the region agree, that what the Syrian army has done all along throughout this whole 10 month uprising against the government, is calibrate its response to the opposition - is to come in and crack down just enough to instill fear in the population, but not enough to garner the attention and condemnation from the international community.

I mean, still, you've got Russia and Iran standing very firm with Syria, and that's because you don't have widespread killing. You don't have the army unleashing its full force on its own people. And then the other theory is that if the army did this, the army itself might fall apart, because you would have commanders basically ordering soldiers to shoot at their own, to shoot at their cousins, their neighbors, their friends.

That's a reason why they've held back. The problem is that, over time as they do this, they end up playing basically a game of Whac-A-Mole. I mean, there's towns and cities around the country that are trying to rise up, and there's only so many they can control at any given time. So getting this close to the capital is definitely a worrying sign for the regime.

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like, over the weekend, the regime had decided the time had come to go after this particular suburban area, if we have dozens of people killed and tanks in the streets.

MCEVERS: Right. To reassert its control, to say, look, we are still the army, we still have most of the guns and we are still in control.

INSKEEP: And how did the fighting go, exactly?

MCEVERS: Well, um, so far, I mean there's still fighting ongoing. Activists I talked to inside Syria today, say that both soldiers with the government and soldiers who are against the government are dying, and civilians are being caught in the crossfire. I mean, the problem with this whole strategy on the part of regime, is that as it drags on and as the international community drags its feet, as well, more and more blood is being shed.

INSKEEP: So Kelly, when you talk about these army deserters and civilians who are trying to rise up against the government in different places at different times, is there any central leadership of the rebels emerging here?

MCEVERS: The leadership is reportedly based in Turkey. There were a lot of these defectors who crossed over the border into Turkey months back. But really, I mean, on the ground I think the leadership is very localized. I think it takes place town to town, city to city.

This group is loosely called, you know, the Free Syrian Army, but on any given day, I'm not sure they're really taking orders from a central leadership. It's more, you know, sort of block by block, moment by moment fighting that's going on.

INSKEEP: And are people waiting for that moment when some of the blocks where there is fighting would be in Damascus itself?

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean, I think that's what's worrying the regime right now, right? I mean, this is why they're cracking down in these suburbs, that it's getting this close, that you can hear the shooting in central Damascus has got to be worrying the officials.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut monitoring the situation in Syria. Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.

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