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As Violence in Syria Escalates, Will Many ‘Fence Sitters’ Back Opposition?

October 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Word of a violent weekend assault on the city of Rastan by Syrian security forces prompted protests in several other cities across the country on Monday. Ray Suarez discusses the recent increase in violence with NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Beirut.
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For more, we’re joined by NPR’s Middle East correspondent, Deborah Amos, who is covering these developments from Beirut.

Deborah, what’s the latest word coming out of Rastan?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR: Well, the latest word is that the army has completely retaken that town.

There was a five-day battle in Rastan. And the army has made it very clear this is a town that had a certain number of army detectors. They went — produced a video a few weeks ago that said that they had defected from the army and they were going to protect the people of Rastan.

I think the army message this week has been, we will not allow a Benghazi in Syria, meaning we will not have the same situation as we saw in Libya, where there was a place where army defectors and opposition people could gather. The Syrian army made it very clear this week that they will not tolerate that.

And, so, after those five days, they brought an enormous amount of tanks to the town, soldiers to the town, and now they have retaken that town.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, 3,000 people getting picked up sounds pretty ominous, dangerous even. Have there been sweeps like this earlier in this conflict? If you get arrested, do you ever get released?

DEBORAH AMOS: Ray, there are documented 15,000 people who have been arrested throughout the country. There have been arrest sweeps before this one. It’s not really surprising that there would be this kind of arrest.

The Syrian government says that the people in Rastan are armed terrorist groups. That has been the government line all along about who is out on the streets. And so, to take back the town, it would be a normal government policy to arrest that many people. Now, the pictures that SANA, which is the official Syrian news agency ran, make it seem like it was very horrific in Rastan.

There’s not been a whole lot of information coming out because most of the communications were cut there. But Syrian newspapers today did run the pictures, and also that they were bring in people to clean up the town. I think that the violence is now going to shift to a town that is very close to Rastan.

And that is Homs. That is another town where we have seen — it’s become a hub for defectors. In fact, three or four neighborhoods have closed themselves off in Homs and also has done the standout — standoff against the military. I think al-Rastan was first. Homs may be second.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Deborah, there’s a new development from Homs? Tell us about it.

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, the new head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, his niece was kidnapped in Homs today. This follows the assassination of the chief cleric in Syria. The grand mufti’s son was shot on Sunday.

These events are, you know, making people very, very nervous as this country slides into the kind of violence that resembles a sectarian, a civil war.

RAY SUAREZ: For people in and out of Syria who were worried whether there was an alternative to Bashar al-Assad, is the formation of this government in exile a significant move?

DEBORAH AMOS: The way that I sort of judge these things is, what did the activists on the streets say about what happened at this meeting in Istanbul, this new Syrian National Council? And there were many, many videos released yesterday after the announcement of the formation of the council from the streets saying, finally, finally, the opposition has organized itself and now there is a public international face for this uprising.

It doesn’t comprise everybody. There are still some arguments. But over these seven months, finally, the opposition has stopped playing individual politics, has found common cause, and has rallied together, and say that they will now begin to lobby the international community to step up actions against Syria.

Here’s the question. Is it enough for the fence-sitters — and there are many of them inside Syria — is it enough for them to say this is the alternative? I think that is not clear. We have to see how they behave in an international setting.

We also have to see what governments recognize the Syrian National Council. And all this comes as the violence in Syria is escalating.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you mentioned, as people were looking around for alternatives, does this kind of development give a place, as support for Assad is sinking around the world, give a place for that new power to shift, a place, if you want to support the opposition, for that support to go, someplace concrete?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it is not all that concrete.

For example, there is no office. There is no address. If — let’s say you’re an army defector inside Syria. Where do you go? That has been the problem for defectors. Many of them sneak across the borders. There are 300 of them in Turkey. There are more than 60 of them in Jordan. And there are some dozens here in Lebanon.

It is very hard for the opposition to say, here’s where you go. This is the address, and especially as things are getting more violent and many of the protest organizers are being hunted, are being arrested, are being taken to jail. I think that this meeting does help. And it does give a face to the opposition — the very fact that you have secularist, leftist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood all together under one umbrella, and the tribes and the Kurds, all these disparate groups who have been opponents of the Assad regime for a long time, but never really came together, never jelled together in any kind of group.

The other side of that is you have an uprising, which is a grassroots organization. So, if you can bring these two sides together, then you have something. But this is very different than Libya. Libya actually had a city. It had a place. And the Syrian opposition doesn’t have that.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Deborah Amos — Deb, good to talk to you.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks. Thanks, Ray.