MARGARET WARNER: For more on the spiraling situation in Syria, we go to Rania Abouzeid in Beirut. She’s a Middle East correspondent for Time and was last in Syria in August reporting under cover.
Rania, thank you for joining us.
The head of the Arab League mission in Syria said today that, in fact, there has been a very high escalation of violence in the last few days. Is that what you’re hearing from your sources?
RANIA ABOUZEID, Time magazine: Well, certainly.
You know, the figures that are coming out are quite ghastly. We’re hearing 50, 60, 77, as many as perhaps 96 people killed today. You know, yesterday was also a figure in the high double digits. This has become the pattern over several months, these daily double-digit death tolls.
However, in the past week or so, we have seen what appears to be a dramatic escalation in that. We’ve also seen the military go back into this — go back into Hama. They hadn’t staged a major offensive in that city since I was last there in August, early September.
So, you know, the Assad security forces are certainly seeming to want to crush this rebellion that has now entered its 10th month. The U.N. has stopped counting. They’re saying that their last count was over 5,000 people. They’ve stopped counting the dead. That’s just an indication of the difficulty of operating inside Syria and also the chaotic scene inside the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have seen especially home-shot videos of security forces attacking protesters and vice versa, but what about civilians? Are they also getting pulled into it? And is it sectarian in nature?
RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, you know, when the Free Syrian Army was first formed — that’s the band of defectors — they were — they had quite clear instruction. You know, they were saying that they only wanted other defectors to join their ranks.
However, recently, we have seen from these amateur videos that are pouring out of Syria, we have seen that civilians have joined the ranks of these — of the Free Syrian Army, of these defectors. As for whether or not it is becoming more sectarian, certainly, the sectarian undertones are there.
When I was in Syria — I think entered three or four times clandestinely — I heard many cries of you know “those Alawite dogs” in Sunni strongholds. It is taking on an increasingly sectarian tone. Alawites, of course, are the coreligionists of President Bashar al-Assad. And although they comprise about 12 percent of Syria’s population, they are disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of the political, military and business establishment.
And that breeds some resentment, as does the fact that we haven’t really seen many breakaways from the Alawite community. You know, for the most part, the military, for example, has the remained remarkably intact, and the defections that we are seeing are largely low-level Sunni conscripts who are breaking away from their units.
MARGARET WARNER: In the ITN piece we just ran, there was a defector who was quoted as saying he had seen Iranian cash and snipers in Syria. There have been a lot of rumors about Iranian involvement and support, but has there been any evidence of that?
RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, you see, that’s the thing. Given the thousands of amateur videos which have emerged — and they really have documented this rebellion in gruesome, bloody detail — and yet there hasn’t been much in the way of video evidence indicating that there are Iranians, that these Iranians are on the ground in Syria.
I heard many, many stories from refugees who fled towns like Jisr Al-Shugur and other areas who said that there were Iranians. They said that they had captured — some of them said they had captured people who did not speak Arabic. They weren’t sure if it was Farsi, but they certainly didn’t speak Arabic.
Now, yesterday, Al-Jazeera aired footage, also amateur footage, which the Free Syrian Army defectors had presented it with, and it showed five Iranians. They had I.D.s. There were two that presented laminated I.D. cards and there were three passports. They said that they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and that they had been nabbed by these defectors in Homs.
Now, of course, you know, a confession under duress is hardly evidence. However, the Syrian government believes that these Iranians are Iranians — Iranian engineers who were kidnapped by — quote, unquote — “terrorists” in late December. So we have two very different versions of the story. And the truth is — certainly lies somewhere in between.
MARGARET WARNER: Rania Abouzeid, thank you so much for joining us. And stay safe.
RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.