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More Syrians Openly Criticizing Assad's Government


Here's a little of what's happened in Syria over the past 24 hours. A Syrian air force colonel flew his jet out of the country, defecting to Jordan. Syria's army intensified its offensive against a rebel army. And the Red Cross had to abandon a mission to evacuate civilians from the city of Homs.

We're going to get some perspective on all of this from NPR's Deborah Amos, who's just left Syria after a very rare 10-day trip to Damascus. She's now in Lebanon. Hi, Deborah.


INSKEEP: What do you think about when you think about this colonel who got out of the country with a jet?

AMOS: What's interesting about his defection is it was planned. Within minutes after the defection was announced, the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group in Syria, announced that his family was safe, that they'd crossed the border into Turkey. So, this was a delicate operation and the Free Syrian Army knew that he was going to defect.

INSKEEP: So not an impulse at all here, apparently, if he got his family out of the country. Is that suggestive of wider things happening in Syria right now as you experienced it?

AMOS: The thing that struck me in the capital was the willingness of Syrians to openly criticize the government. And not just in whispers in their homes, but in conversations on the street. Let me give you two examples.

I had coffee with a wealthy businessman in town and he said: How can we possibly recover from this? The president should leave. His more cautious wife said: Please don't tell anybody you were here, because we'll all be arrested.

A few days earlier, I was in an art gallery in Damascus and a film director walked in. And he said: This is like the last scene in "Apocalypse Now." You know the part where he said, the horror, oh, the horror. This is what the regime is doing. It's visiting horror on the whole country. And he was saying this in a very loud voice. And anybody in the gallery could hear and he didn't care.

INSKEEP: Well, what is making people not care when they would've been terrified to say such things just a few months ago?

AMOS: I asked a lot of people about that. And one thing they say is that they can't arrest all of us. So, people feel free to express themselves. Even on Facebook you can see the older generation is beginning to put things on their Facebook page that might've got them arrested six months ago. The killings have changed people. And many Syrians I talked to in the capital now believe that the regime will go. They don't know how and they don't know when, but they are convinced it will happen.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about another thing, Deborah Amos, because it's been said all along that Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, has been able to last this long because he has certain groups who support him. There's this Alawite minority. There are other minorities. There's also a business elite that's doing very well. Are you suggesting to us that some of those key groups are beginning to back away from him?

AMOS: You're beginning certainly to see the business community. We were driving up the central highway with the U.N. monitors, and I saw flatbed trucks filled with new cars. And I asked about it. And it turns out that Syrians can now re-export goods. So, nobody is buying in Syria. Where the cars were going were out of the country.

The sanctions have been tough on Syrians, but they have been surviving. The regime is getting outside help. They're getting money from the Iranians and there's reports of fuel smuggling from here in Lebanon. For the opposition, one economist estimated there's $150 million coming into the country every month. These are from Syrians abroad, who are now organized to support the uprising. It's coming from the Gulf. Money's pouring in to buy weapons. There's a strong family network.

Syrians have lived for decades under these sanctions. Everybody's learned to adapt. And so everybody is waiting in fear, in some cases, because they don't know how it's going to turn out. But people are wiling to be more open than I have ever seen before.


Deb Amos now in Lebanon after a trip to Damascus. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.