TOPICS > World

End Not Yet in Sight, Syria’s Two-Year Conflict Reaches Grim Milestone

January 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Syria's civil war nears the two-year mark, the United Nations reports an rapid uptick in casualties: Of the 60,000 mostly-civilians who have been killed, 90 percent died in 2012. Ray Suarez talks to NPR's Deborah Amos about the conflict, the stalemate and its human toll.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on this, I’m joined by NPR’s Deborah Amos. She’s crossed into Syria many times during the two-year-long conflict, and is covering it and its casualties closely.

Well, Deborah, we were just reporting on the rebels inching closer to the capital, Damascus. Has the momentum changed in favor of the anti-Assad forces?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR: It seems now that we are in a stalemate. The fighting has really not moved.

At the moment, the regime still controls every major city in the country. And the rebels have not been able to change that balance. I think the focus of the fighting now is around two major air bases. The regime still controls the air. The rebels control most of the rural areas in the country, and two major cities are now in dispute. But the lines really haven’t moved over the last couple of months.

RAY SUAREZ: The anti-U.S. tone of the rebels is interesting. It seems like it’s been intensifying, even as the United States talks about delivering nonlethal aid to both civilians and the fighters themselves. How do you explain that?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think that there was some expectation when the opposition reformed itself into a new group, when the military, the rebels reformed themselves into a more coherent group, that that would somehow pay off for them, that there would be some more weapons delivered, maybe some more aid that will come directly through the opposition movement, to bolster their position inside the country.

So far, that hasn’t happened. And that’s been particularly a bitter pill for the rebels to swallow. In fact, when I left Istanbul, many of the rebel commanders were complaining that the arms had actually slowed down to almost a full stop. And what they are fighting with is what they can amass by taking over military bases inside Syria.

They are depending on themselves. They had expected more support after they did what the international community asked them to do, which is come together in more coherent groups.

RAY SUAREZ: As weapons percolate into rebel hands, they seem to be held by the most radicalized, the most Islamist of all the fighters. How is that happening? And is it out of ideology, or just because these guys know how to fight?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, that is true, Ray. These guys do know how to fight.

They have been the best fighters on the battlefield. And so, when a rebel group takes over a military base, it’s often Al-Nusra Front who is at the forefront of that fight. And they collect the spoils. So their success builds on success.

And when the U.S. designated them as a terrorist group, in fact, they got more recruits. And more anger was building in Syria, because their argument is, wait a minute, these are the guys that are delivering us from the regime.

And many Syrians say, you know, we would sleep with the devil if you can stop the air force from bombing our cities. And so the popularity of Al-Nusra Front has only grown.

RAY SUAREZ: With all that you have just said, some of Syria’s most recent traditional allies are very much on the side of the regime. So when the smoke clears, if Assad goes, where does Syria go? Not into the arms of Russia, right, or Iran?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think that, if the regime goes, that is precisely right, that the old alliances simply are no longer workable.

But I think we really don’t know who will rule Syria if the regime goes. And what you are seeing now, I think, is that the international community is desperate for a negotiated settlement.

And so, in part, the explanation for the slowdown in the weapons is that nobody on the outside wants a military victory inside Syria. They want the rebels to be able to pressure the regime to come to a negotiated settlement, because the international community is worried that, if the regime collapses, there will be chaos inside Syria.

It’s a very difficult balance to maintain, because when the regime feels strong, Assad says, I will stay. When the rebels feel strong, they don’t want to negotiate. So how you bring all of these interested parties to a negotiating table? We are nowhere close to that moment.

RAY SUAREZ: And nowhere close to a resolution from — very briefly — from everything that you have said, it sounds like this still has a lot of chapters to run.

DEBORAH AMOS: Yes, I’m afraid that that is true.

And we could be in for a very brutal, long stretch. Over the past couple of days, the regime has stepped up its air campaign. There has been some significant bombings in the rural areas in the north. And we have now reached an amazing death count; 5,000 people a month since July have died. And those are mostly civilians.

We really don’t know the amount of death in either the rebel groups or in the regime military. Neither one of them are publishing their death counts. So when you hear 60,000 people have died since the beginning of this uprising, 90 percent of that in 2012, we are talking about civilians. And there is, as everybody says, no end in sight.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Deborah Amos, thanks for joining us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you very much.