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More Civilians Joining Syria's Rebel Movement


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The opposition in Syria is increasingly taking up arms. They've been devastated by months of assaults by government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad

WERTHEIMER: The army offensive to crush the rebels has been so ferocious that a U.N. monitoring mission was suspended. But we're about to hear the sounds of the rebels fighting back.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deb Amos is one of the few reporters to make it into Syria in recent months. This morning, she reports on the Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army, and on civilians caught in the fighting.


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is what it sounds like in Harista, a neighborhood in the suburbs of Damascus.

SARAH: The fight between the Free Syrian Army and the regular Syrian army is happening every night.

AMOS: She says her name is Sarah. She lives with her family in Harista.

SARAH: It's very loud and frightening, so my mom spent the three last months in the bathroom. It's the only safe place, part of the house.

AMOS: But it's hardly safe, with Harista under siege by the Syrian army.

SARAH: They been - attacked us with machine guns, heavy machine guns. And we have many hurt people.

AMOS: How much is the Free Syrian army in Harista?

SARAH: We have many. And we have many who those are preparing to carry guns.

AMOS: But when they have guns, does the government even come harder?

SARAH: Yes, and they know that. But there are no other way.

AMOS: Many Syrians are making the same choice. A rebel force that began with army deserters is now swelled with civilians. The Free Syrian Army is just a name, says Abdul Aziz Kheyer, a longtime opposition activist in Damascus. He says the FSA profile is different in every town and village. In cities like Hama, in central Syria, he says the rebel army is well trained and has popular support.

ABDUL AZIZ KHEYER: They keep the city secured against thieves and criminals. That's why people there respect them. I love them. While in the countryside of Hama, it's a completely different view.

AMOS: There, gunmen calling themselves FSA are just armed gangs, he says.

KHEYER: Some of them kill people due to sectarian considerations. And some are only criminal groups who kidnap people and ask for ransom.

AMOS: But on the streets of Damascus, ask about the Free Syrian Army and you hear respect - especially from the young. This 18-year-old high school student, afraid to give him name, says he welcomes the FSA in his neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They protect the people (foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Because, he adds in Arabic, the regular army shoots the protesters.

Since the start of anti-government demonstrations, the regime has responded with brute force. And many activists have lost faith in nonviolent strategies after so many peaceful protesters have died.

But there's still a debate about recent rebel tactics - targeting infrastructure, ambushes on army checkpoints, military cars and police stations, says this activist who wouldn't give her name.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They didn't come into the neighborhood to kill off policemen or army guys. The first purpose of their presence is to protect civilians.

AMOS: Now there's another strategy. In some towns along Syria's main artery - the North-South Highway - the Free Syrian Army has pushed the army out, destroying tanks and taking prisoners. In Rastan, Talbiseh, in parts of Homs, the rebels are in control, but at a heavy cost. Army bombardments have pounded entire blocks to rubble.

Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure in Damascus, asks what have the rebel's gained.

LOUAY HUSSEIN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He says opposition figures outside the country are misleading the rebels, inflating their numbers, assuring them that the regime is about to collapse and they must fight on.

But the army and the regime are still strong in Harista, says Sarah. She believes there can be no protest without the rebels and their guns.

SARAH: We couldn't go out to the street without a protection with the Free Syrian Army, because the security will shoot us suddenly, directly. Even this small right, we don't have it without them now.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Several outside powers have been trying to influence the Syrian crisis. One is the United States. Another is Russia, which has supported the government of President Assad.

INSKEEP: President Obama met Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, but it's not clear how the two countries can work together. The two presidents met along with other world leaders at a summit of the G20, the group of 20 leaders of the world's largest economies.

WERTHEIMER: Their latest regular meeting is in Mexico. Much of the summit has focused on the eurozone debt crisis. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are all offering to give more to an international crisis fund, in exchange for more influence in global monetary policy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.