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Syrian Conflict in Stalemate, Both Sides Wage ‘Image War’ to Keep Up Morale

August 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Syria, the Assad regime has made major gains in the central part of the country while rebel forces remain strong in the north and south. Margaret Warner talks to NPR's Deborah Amos about how both sides are appealing to their bases with imagery, the resiliency of Syrian civilians and if there an end in sight for this conflict.
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TRANSCRIPT

For more on what is going on in Syria, we are joined now by NPR’s Deborah Amos. She has been covering the country’s civil war since it began.And she’s back in the United States for a brief visit.

And, Deb Amos, thank you for joining us during one of these brief visits of yours.

DEBORAH AMOS, National Public Radio:Great to be here. Thanks.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your sense — what is your sense of the strategic situation on the ground in Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think over the past couple of days, we have seen this continuing momentum for the regime, especially in the city of Homs. They have been able to take a particular neighborhood, Khalidiya.

The rebels have had that neighborhood for more than a year, and this continues on from taking the town of Qusayr on the Lebanese border. So what we have seen is that the regime is able to use a not-so-secret weapon, foreign fighters. Hezbollah from Lebanon, the militant Shiite militia has come in to back up the army and they have been able to score two significant victories against the rebels in the center of the country.

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The rebels remain strong in the north and in the south.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what’s the state of the rebel forces and their state of mind? You talked to people involved in that camp. Are they demoralized?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think Qusayr was demoralizing with the rebels and Khalidiya is as well. These are both symbolic, especially in the city of Homs, which was the heart of the revolution. And the regime has come down very hard, in fact, has destroyed Khalidiya to save it.

We saw pictures today, dramatic pictures, yesterday and today, of unbelievable destruction in this neighborhood. The regime showed a lot of pictures in that neighborhood to prove that a historic mosque was still standing, but what you saw instead and what so many people focused on was this once-thriving neighborhood has been completely destroyed. We also saw that in Qusayr on the Lebanese border. As the regime routed the rebels, they destroyed the city.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, have the weapons the administration promised and they had to get it through Congress, but have any really — have any arrived? Are they making any difference?

DEBORAH AMOS: I was there about three weeks ago in Jordan talking to rebels there, and nothing had arrived and they were complaining about it. There are weapons coming through. They are from Saudi Arabia. The Americans now are helping with vetting the rebels.

It’s the Americans, the French, the Turks and the Saudis who have an operation room in Amman. They are in constant touch with the rebel there is. As the situation stands now, the U.S. is still giving non-lethal aid.What that means is night-vision goggles. It means Kevlar vests.It means MREs. The United States so far has not started putting weapons into the hands of rebels, but they are taking a big role in vetting who does get the weapons that are coming through Jordan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we saw today — one, you mentioned the pictures from Khalidiya. Two, the Assad regime essentially released this video of him visiting troops in Darayya.Is there also an image war going on between two sides?

DEBORAH AMOS: Oh, there’s no doubt and that’s been since the very beginning.

The other thing that we saw this week is President Bashar al-Assad opened an Instagram account and this is another occasion for very calm leader-like photographs that were put out on the Web. On the rebel side, there are seven YouTube channels that are with the FSA. You can watch almost every battle that takes place, putting out more content than Al-Jazeera or PBS.

It’s a huge amount of video. I think both sides are speaking to their base, something that we understand in America politics, and it is to keep up the morale of each side to say, we are winning. And so all of that is done with this imagery.

The truth of the matter is, we are still a stalemate in Syria. Neither side can deliver a knockout blow, although neither side appears to be willing to negotiate an end of this brutal, brutal conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: And so we have heard so much about the refugees. More than a million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, but what — from your trips in there and the people you have talked to, how are people who have stayed, millions of them, in some of these battle-torn cities, how are they getting by? 

DEBORAH AMOS: There’s two kinds of people inside. There are millions of Syrians who are displaced, people who lived in the neighborhood of Khalidiya who have been driven out and find themselves in makeshift refugee — they aren’t refugee — they are internally displaced camps within Syria.

And those people are not doing well.International aid organizations don’t often get to them. It’s up to the rebels to care for them, to make sure they get enough to eat. But there are many villages in the north and in parts of Aleppo where people are going about their lives. It’s now two-and-a-half years into this conflict and both in the rebel-held areas they know that every couple of days one of those villages may have a rocket or a mortar attack or a missile.

It’s part of life. People have gotten on with their lives. This is the same in the capital. People go out at night. There are restaurants open in the capital. Also, in the south, in Daraa, another contested city where you have a regime-controlled area in the middle of the city and the rebels control large swathes in the countryside, people, you know, get up in the morning. Some of them tend their farms. In Damascus, people go to work.

It’s really quite amazing, the resilience of Syrians in so much violence that as time has gone on people have learned to live with some of this violence. I’m not talking about the seriously contested areas. Of course, those are terrible for civilians, but there are parts of Syria where people have a relatively normal life.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Deb Amos of NPR, thank you and travel safely.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.