In Syria, Rebels Celebrate Successes, But Sectarian Violence Grows

BY Larisa Epatko  July 26, 2012 at 11:27 AM EDT


Kelly McEvers, NPR’s foreign correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon, spent a week in rebel-held areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. She filed a week’s worth of reports for NPR, and on Thursday she’s coming to the NewsHour to talk about what she heard and saw.

Part 1: In ‘Free’ Syrian Village, a Plea for U.S. Help

At a rebel headquarters and a gathering of mourners in the village of Atima, McEvers is asked the same thing by the Syrians: Why won’t the United States do more to help? Here’s an excerpt of her report:

>A young girl who’s volunteered to translate asks me the same question the rebels asked in the police station: Why won’t anybody help us?

I tell her it’s complicated. I say I don’t speak for the U.S. government, but I do know that many people don’t want to see the U.S. get mired in another Iraq or Afghanistan. I feel like I’m saying something totally normal, but it shatters the girl. She starts to cry and can’t stop. She eventually tells the other women in the room what I said.

The women stare at me. We won’t forget this, the sister of the dead man says finally. When we control Syria, we won’t forget that you forgot about us.

Part 2: Border Battles a Cat-and-Mouse Game in Syria

Government forces tried to enter the town of Salaqin, but rebel forces fought back with homemade bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. McEvers reports on the rebels’ success:

In a place where every little victory means something, this is definitely one. We manage to grab rebel commander Anas az Zeer and sit him down in what used to be a government post office that the rebels have now claimed as a headquarters.

We ask him how this little victory will help bring down the Syrian regime. First, he says, it is important for the rebels to hold towns like Salaqin along the Turkish border, so injured fighters can reach Turkey. The injured used to die in makeshift field hospitals or along difficult border crossings. Now many of them make it to Turkish hospitals and survive.

Anas says the bigger goal is that all the rebel groups in northern Syria will gather here and push forward to Syria’s capital, Damascus, to storm the presidential palace. He admits that might be a long way off.

Part 3: In Syria’s North, a Shadow State Emerges

In Qurqanya, a town that supports the revolution, rebels can operate in the open, McEvers says:

I’m in a truck riding with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. And we’re doing something that just a month ago, maybe two months ago, would have been totally unheard of. We’re driving on a highway — freely, openly, during the middle of the day.

In fact, we just went through a checkpoint. It wasn’t a government checkpoint but a Free Syrian Army checkpoint. They saw who we were — a pickup truck with guys with guns in the back — and waved us through.

Driving into the next town, the town marker has been painted with the rebel flag. Once we’re in town, we can tell what that means. There is no sign of the Syrian state anywhere.

Part 4: Unspinning the Narrative of a Syrian Massacre

McEvers dug deeper into the reported killing of 100 people in the town of Tremseh by government forces. For the first time, rebels are admitting they had a role in sparking the attacks, and sectarian killings are on the rise, she said:

One fighter, who goes only by the name Khazzafi, was in a village near Tremseh on the day of the killing. He says the trouble started around 5 a.m.

Four officers in the Syrian army were driving near Tremseh. All of them were from the minority Alawite sect — the same sect as Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and his inner circle.

Khazzafi says rebels blew up the car with a homemade bomb, instantly killing the Alawite officers. Then the army began bombarding the town with artillery, tanks and helicopters.

Khazzafi says the shelling continued until midafternoon. Then the army pulled back, and armed Alawite militias known as shabiha, or ghosts, moved in and went on a killing spree. Khazzafi says he was in the woods just outside the village, helping evacuate wounded. He says he heard this chilling phrase spoken with an Alawite accent: “He’s not dead yet. Finish him.”

Part 5: Airing Friday on NPR, McEvers’ report from Derat Azza explores what happens when Syria’s regime decides to bombard a town with shelling and rockets, and how the Free Syrian Army is trying to control its message.

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