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In Syria: ‘This Country Is Far From Unified’

July 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Amid a violent government crackdown, large demonstrations have been held in Syrian cities both for and against President Assad, who has called for dialogue with his opposition. National Public Radio's Deborah Amos speaks with Margaret Warner from Damascus about the ongoing uprising.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the situation there, I spoke earlier with Deborah Amos of National Public Radio in Damascus. She’s one of a handful of foreign reporters recently allowed into Syria.

Deborah Amos, thanks for joining us.

There were reports today of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets around Syria. What was it like where you have been?

DEBORAH AMOS, National Public Radio: Well, there are actually competing demonstrations.

Here in the capital — you may be able to hear — there was a mass rally of support for President Bashar al-Assad. They called it the day of national unity. But this country is far from unified. There were huge protest, opposition people say the biggest yet, after 15 weeks of protests, in particular in the city of Hama. They say there were 200,000 people in the streets there.

The security police and the army have withdrawn three weeks ago from the city of Hama. So they can do whatever they want there. And they do. We talked to a man tonight who said that the young people clean the streets after the protests, even picking up the cigarette butts. So, Hama is essentially running itself.

We were also for the first time ever taken to a protest by our government escorts. They took us to a suburb of Damascus, a small town — suburb called Barza. And they allowed us to walk into a protest to talk to people, also another place where the security police withdrew.

MARGARET WARNER: At the anti-government protests that you went to, were all the demonstrators at all limited in what they could say? Did the government forces try to interfere at all?

DEBORAH AMOS: They didn’t. There were police outside the town. We were taken there by our government escorts. And they said, look, you can’t stand here, particularly on the street. It’s dangerous. These people have guns. They have knives.

And we were all just a little bit fearful about what was going to happen. As people came out of the mosque, about 300 demonstrators moved into the street. They had already prepared banners, so, obviously, they had them in the mosque. They were young people in their 30s, professionals.

A man told me he was a dental technician. I met a professor there, English speakers. And they were a little nervous about speaking to us, because here we were with the government. But it was allowed today. This was something new today. It was a gesture by the government.

And, so, as they got braver about talking to this small contingent of Western reporters, they said, look, today is different because you’re here. Last week, we lost four people in the streets. Last week, we had injuries. There were — there was a makeshift clinic in the city, because people were afraid to go to a hospital, afraid that they would be arrested.

But it was very interesting. As people took the wraps off of their faces, some of them gave us their names. They were feeling their way along in this new situation that nobody is sure of. It was small, to be sure, 300 people. But they say that they have been out every week since March.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us about that meeting you went to on Monday of the critics of the government in a hotel in Damascus. What was that like? And what did it tell you about the state of the resistance movement?

DEBORAH AMOS: That was also something new here, in fact, first time ever for the opposition to meet in the heart of the capital. This is a country where, for 40 years, it’s been run by one party and one family.

So, to have this meeting was really something to see. And these were an older generation of opposition leaders. Many of them had been jailed for their views in the past, had spent a long time in jail. So, here they were, out in the open, calling for a change in the system here, asking, demanding for a change in the system here.

It tells you something, that the government is trying to find a way out of this crisis. They’re talking about a national dialogue. The president wants to have a national dialogue, he says, on July 10.

This group said: Not us. We are not your partners until the violence stops on the streets.

And then there is another group, and these are the younger organizers of the street protests. They have really come to prominence. There are leaders who are emerging among that group. And this is a new dynamic in what has happened over the last four months here.

MARGARET WARNER: And are those too camps unified, or do they have very distinct and differing approaches?

DEBORAH AMOS: It is not so much whether they are unified or not. They don’t need each other.

And they speak, you know, across social media platforms. So you may find out what young leaders of actually the street demonstrations want by reading their Facebook page.

One of the things that they did say about the meeting on Monday of the older generation of opposition: You don’t speak for us. You can’t talk in a national dialogue for us. We are our own constituency. We have been out here taking these risks. We have been dying on the streets of Damascus, so you could sit in a Damascus hotel and talk about changing the system here.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what’s the atmosphere like in Damascus? Does it feel like a city or a country under siege or in the midst of a revolution?

DEBORAH AMOS: It doesn’t. Damascus is very normal. You know, shops are open. You don’t have so many customers. Hotels are open. There are no tourists here.

Those are the things that you notice. The economy is reeling from what has happened over the last four months. And you can see it. And people really, you know, they want to you come in their taxicab. They want to you come to their restaurant. They haven’t had any business.

Tonight, of course, there was this huge mass rally. So you feel that there is some reason that people feel that they need to come to the streets. The country is divided. You have plenty of support still in Damascus for President Bashar al-Assad. Whether they agree with the way that the government runs things is really unclear to me.

What they are afraid of is, as somebody said to me the morning after, they don’t know who the protesters are. They don’t exactly trust them. There is sectarian tension in this country. And that’s where you feel that there is a crisis, not by what you see on the street.

You know, there’s — there’s not gunfire in the street, although tonight — I don’t know if you can hear it, but there are huge protests behind me. But, you know, you don’t feel like you are in a dangerous capital. You don’t at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Deborah Amos of NPR, thank you so much.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.