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Leader of Free Syrian Army on Civil War’s Game Changer and Spillover Effects

May 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks with Margaret Warner who reports from Beirut where she's examining the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. She recently spoke with Gen. Salim Idriss, leader of the Free Syrian Army, about the consequences of the West giving arms to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the potential game changer for the war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we return to Syria for two looks at the conflict.

Ray Suarez has our reports.

RAY SUAREZ: As we reported earlier, the top diplomats from Germany and the United States said Russia’s supply of advanced air defense systems would only prolong Syria’s bloody civil war.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain said Syrian rebels battling Bashar al-Assad need ammunition and heavy weapons to counter the Damascus regime’s tanks and aircraft. McCain said the current battlefield situation favors Assad’s forces. During a trip to Syria, the Arizona senator met with the head of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris.

The NewsHour’s Margaret Warner is in Lebanon continuing her series of reports on the Syrian war spillover effects in the region. Earlier today, she spoke to Gen. Idris. And she joins me now from Beirut.

Margaret, the general has been involved in some pretty serious fighting near the Lebanese border, fighting you could see in the distance. How does he see the situation on the ground in and around Qusayr?

MARGARET WARNER: Ray, I talked to him late this evening our time.

And he said the situation in Qusayr is really quite desperate, in the sense that they have run out of food and medicine. Many civilians are dead. Many fighters are dead. There are many wounded they cannot get out. And he described them as sort of hunkered down.

But when I said, how long can you hold out? He said for a very long time, and that they are sending — they are sending the Free Syrian Army is sending reinforcements. He said that they had inserted 300 more fighters today, that he and his commanders had established some sort of an operating center where they hoped to get 700 more fighters nearby by tomorrow night and take — get them in with food, water, medicine, and ammunition.

So, far from getting ready for a defeat, which is what you’re hearing from some quarters, the Free Syrian Army see this as a very strategic and important battle, and they plan to double down on it.

RAY SUAREZ: But how does Idris see the competitive situation between his army and Assad’s changing if Russia follows through or has followed through on its plans to send new weapons to Assad?

MARGARET WARNER: Ray, that was the question. He said, I cannot understand why our friends in the West don’t help us when they see how much the Iranians and the Russians are doing for Assad’s forces.

And when I asked him what will happen if he successfully delivers these surface-to-air missiles, this anti-defense system, he said it will make Assad much more powerful. He said if the West ever decides to establish a no-fly zone, it will be much harder. He said, right now, Assad’s air defenses are very poor. He said, we know that.

But if he delivers this is anti-aircraft weaponry, he basically was saying it’s a game-changer.

RAY SUAREZ: What does he need from the West? There he is telling you that he can’t understand why he isn’t getting more support. Was he specific about what his army needs? Or does it need everything, really?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it really needs everything, but they have been saying since I was in the — on the Turkey side of the Syrian border in November, in December, the same thing they have been saying all along, which is, we are being bombarded from the air.

For instance, that’s the situation in Qusayr. The Hezbollah fighters have got the town surrounded, he said, but we got a daily bombardment from the air. And they have no means of bringing down any of these planes. These planes fly so high, these bombers, you can’t even see them most of the time. So that’s the number one thing they want.

They also just need more materiel, particularly ammunition and basic supplies. But the most important thing they say they need — and I’m sure that this is what he told Sen. McCain earlier this week — is they really want something to counteract these airplanes.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, for a long time, Lebanon, where you have been reporting this week, has been under the domination of Syria. And if the country that’s been dominating you is in chaos, what does that mean to your own country? What’s been happening in Lebanon now that this regional bully boy of Syria is distracted with its own civil war?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they have been distracted for the last two years, and people have said to me that, you know, it is a new feeling for Lebanon, which usually took its orders directly or indirectly from the Syrian regime, both through their influence, through Hezbollah and the government, and also simply by the power of their military and secret police, and just the whole network of interconnections.

Now, in a way, the tables have turned. Syria is looking to Hezbollah for help. But the Syrian government is really powerless or seems powerless to, for instance, seal that border, which is one of the things that Gen. Idris is asking, keep the Hezbollah fighters to getting in.

So I think that for a country like Lebanon, which suffered through a 15-year civil war and then years — another 15 more years after the civil war of occupation by the Syrians, this is an unexpected kind of freedom, but one they are really not ready to handle yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Our Margaret Warner joining us from Beirut.

Thanks a lot, Margaret.