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On Syrian-Turkish Border, ‘Underdog’ Rebels Have Carved Out a Buffer Zone

July 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Pockets of Syria have fallen under the control of rebel fighters, the anti-Assad opposition forces known as the Syrian Free Army. Judy Woodruff speaks to NPR's Kelly McEvers about her recent trip to five towns along the Turkish border in rural Syria.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For a first-hand look into events on the ground in Syria, I’m joined now by NPR’s Kelly McEvers. She has just completed a weeklong reporting trip to northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border, where she visited a number of towns currently under rebel control.

Kelly McEvers, welcome.

And how did you decide where you were going inside Syria? We have a map, I think, we are going to be able to show people.

KELLY MCEVERS, NPR: The rebels have basically carved out their own sort of unofficial buffer zone there in northern Syria. It’s right next to the Turkish border.

For them, the benefit is that they’re able to get their wounded out into Turkey a lot more easily than they could before, and that they can basically get weapons and money into Syria from that — from the Turkish area. So, for us, it made a lot of sense to sort of — to get a sense of who the rebels are to spend time in the region that they control, instead of trying to sort of cower and hide and go with them undercover from place to place, to be in this kind of swathe of towns and villages that they actually control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where they are relatively safe, free from government assault on a regular basis or…

KELLY MCEVERS: At this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

KELLY MCEVERS: If you were to try to look at the map and say where exactly do the rebels control, every day, it changes a little bit. It morphs and changes. On the edges of the area they control, the government might take a town back.

There was one town when we were there that switched hands between the government and the rebels four times. Why? Because the government realizes that this border area is important to the rebels. They realize that it is this buffer zone. And so they are trying to sort of regain control.

But, obviously, the government’s army is stretched and sees that its priorities are elsewhere, namely Damascus and Aleppo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us about the rebels you met. And you talked to a number of them. Who are they? What are they like?

KELLY MCEVERS: It’s a really good question and it’s one I think a lot of people want to answer right now.

They call themselves the Free Syrian Army, but that’s about as far as sort of the unification goes. They don’t necessarily answer to a single leader. They’re a bunch of disparate groups spread out across the country, some say up to 1,000 of them. One unit might only be eight guys, mostly civilians.

I think the image is that these guys are mostly defected soldiers, people who leave the army and then join the rebels. A lot of those guys actually go to these refugee camps in Turkey, for fear of what would happen to their family after they defect. So a lot of the guys we have met are civilians, workers, farmers, people who decided to take up arms and sort of defend this uprising, this revolution against the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And relatively lightly armed, in contrast to what the government has.

KELLY MCEVERS: Exactly. They are so outgunned right now. They’re basically operating with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs.

That’s another key component to their sort of arsenal right now. That’s how they deal with regime tanks.

But when you talk about a fully equipped army with tanks, artillery, mortars, helicopters, and now we have seen jets being employed in this fight by the regime’s army, you can see that the rebels are definitely the underdogs here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kelly McEvers, what about the civilians you talked to? And what are they saying about al this? Are they caught in the middle? Are they hoping it’s all going to be over? Are they lining up with one side or another?

KELLY MCEVERS: I was in just this very small pocket of Syria, so it’s important to say that I can only speak for the people that I was with at that particular time.

By and large, in these villages, they see the rebels as their only hope. They say, look, 16, 17 months ago, we went into the streets to protest against our president. We said we wanted to bring down the president. The regime shot at us, detained us, and tortured us. And no one came to our aid except these guys. These guys picked up guns. And maybe some of them are my cousins and uncles and brothers. They picked up guns. They came here to defend us and we welcome them.

This, they say despite the fact that the rebels’ presence in their town sometimes brings the ire of the government. It might mean that civilian homes get shelled, that people die. They say, we don’t care. We’re willing to take that risk because these are the only people here to protect us. So the rebels definitely have hearts and minds in these towns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The morale overall, though, was what? What did you find?

KELLY MCEVERS: Again, people were pretty willing to stay on message, especially when talking to a Western journalist. Again, we support these rebels, we support the cause. It’s just any day now that we’re going to take down the regime.

While I was inside Syria, there was this high-level attack inside Damascus that killed four high-ranking officials in the Syrian government. So, I think that was a real morale boost. And a few days after that, you saw a lot of units going to Aleppo. I was very close to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city in the north.

And you saw a lot of rebel units going there, sort of going to take up the fight, and going all the way to Damascus as well. It looks like the government has regained control in Damascus and may soon do the same in Aleppo. So, that morale may turn around pretty quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You had some interesting conversations with people, rebels and citizens, about why the United States isn’t doing more. Explain a little about that.

KELLY MCEVERS: Yes, I think there’s a lot of anger. I think people look at the case of Libya and they look at the case of other places where the U.S. or at least international community has done more to intervene on the diplomatic level, on the military level.

Look, I think Syrians are smart enough to know that they don’t want an Iraq situation. I think most people would say, we don’t want anyone to come in and invade and occupy our country. I think they’re OK with that. And they’re also smart enough to know that the Libya scenario probably doesn’t make sense for NATO or the United States. A no-fly zone…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The no-fly zone.

KELLY MCEVERS: … would be much more complicated in Syria. They get that.

But they say, look, how about some coordination? How about some help? How about some training? There’s a lot of things that you could do. You could fly airplanes over our country and tell us, hey, there’s some tanks moving this way and there’s no tanks on this road, reconnaissance, intelligence, those sorts of things that frankly Western militaries are good at.

And they see that that’s not happening. And they say that it’s not much longer that they’re going to be willing to accept this help. I think, at some point, they are going to refuse it at any cost and it might be too late for any intervention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kelly McEvers, NPR, an extraordinary trip. Thank you very much.

KELLY MCEVERS: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And online, you can find links to four of Kelly’s reports for NPR this week from the Turkish-Syrian border.