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Syrian Opposition Finds Some Coherence


Elsewhere in the Middle East, fierce fighting has continued in recent days between the Syrian army and rebels in the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo. Up to 30,000 people are now believed to have been killed in the conflict, which has ground on for the past 20 months. The Syrian opposition has been fragmented throughout the conflict, but this month its factions reached a new understanding and appointed a leader. For more on the latest, I'm joined now by NPR correspondents Deborah Amos from Istanbul in Turkey and Kelly McEvers, who has just this weekend arrived in Baghdad. Welcome to the program, both of you.



MARTIN: Deb, let's start with you from Istanbul. How have Syrians reacted to this new coalition that's been formed?

AMOS: Outside, the initial reaction was euphoria. Finally, a plausible alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The top three leaders - a popular preacher, a respected businessman, an activist, a woman - all from Damascus. This is a more secular leadership than the old one, which had become dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Now on Friday, we finally got some of the first reactions from inside Syria. One comes from a little town called Kafr Nabl. And they posted online this: Yes, to the national coalition but our yes comes with a caution - your performance will be the judge. So, that is the question. Can the new coalition deliver aid, international support, arms for the rebels? That's a big test.

MARTIN: And, Deb, what role has the international community been playing since this change was announced?

AMOS: It's the French who've taken the lead, and the Gulf countries and the Turks. They've all been out front with recognition this week. That's a big diplomatic step. And then on Saturday, France stepped up their game again by accepting a new ambassador to represent Syria and France. He is an Alawite. He's from Syria's minority, a member of President Bashar al-Assad's sect. So, he's a man from the opposition and that is very important. The Obama administration appears to be leaning back. Even though this new opposition was formed from pressure from Washington, here is someone from the State Department here meeting with some of the activists here. But it is not a high-profile meeting.

MARTIN: And, Kelly McEvers, you read those discussions in Doha, where this coalition was formed, this leader appointed. You've just landed in Baghdad to report the Syrian crisis from that perspective. What could the Syrian opposition and its allies learn from what happened in Iraq, if anything?

MCEVERS: I think there's a couple of things. It's an interesting question 'cause I think this is very much on the mind of the American diplomats, some of whom who've served in Iraq and who are now dealing with this Syrian opposition. I mean, one of them is that, you know, they really wanted to push for an opposition that included insiders, people who actually have been in Syria throughout this whole crisis. I think we saw in Iraq, you know, you had groups like the Iraqi National Congress, people who'd been outside of the country for decades, who then came back to the country after Saddam Hussein fell to try to rule things and they really didn't have any credibility on the streets.

So, I think that's one thing that diplomats really want to push this Syrian opposition to think about. Another thing is just this notion of, you know, what will the regime be after its, quote-unquote, "fall," if the opposition is successful in its goal. And I think diplomats are really pushing the Syrians to think about not wanting that, you know, to dismantle the entire thing. Again, looking at Iraq, Saddam Hussein fell, the Americans came in and basically fired tens of thousands of members of the Baath Party regime and then the country fell into chaos. I think the Americans and some of their Western allies are encouraging the opposition, you know, not to necessarily want the entire dismantling of the regime but to think about some of the people in the regime who don't have blood on their hands, who might be able to continue in the future. The problem there is, is those people might be hard to find.

MARTIN: There have been also been reports, Kelly, of insurgents flowing into Syria from Iraq. Is that a real concern?

MCEVERS: Unfortunately, it is, and, you know, like many things in Iraq, it goes along sectarian lines. We have seen reports that Shiite Iraqis have gone into Syria. Most of the justification there is that they're going to fight with militias loyal to Bashar al-Assad, you know, to protect some of the Shiite religious sites. We also know that Sunni fighters from Iraq's tribal areas, you know, are selling weapons to the other side, to the Syrian rebels who are fighting against Bashar al-Assad. And, you know, we do know that they're training up some men and sending them too. And then, of course, in the north you ever have, you know, reports of Kurdish training camps and organization there. So, I mean, I think the scary thing is, is while the conflict in Syria may not on the whole be a sectarian one, it seems the involvement of its neighbors might make it so.

MARTIN: Kelly McEvers in Baghdad and Deborah Amos in Istanbul. Thank you both very much.

AMOS: You're welcome.

MCEVERS: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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