Cycle Of Protest And Crackdown Continues In Syria

Originally published on May 24, 2011 4:48 pm

What is going on in Syria is hard to really pin down. Most Western journalists are prohibited from entering the country, but one thing that seems certain, reports NPR's Kelly McEvers from Beirut, is that the cycle of protests then government crackdown continues two months after Syrians began calling for an end to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Case in point: Sunday the government shelled the northern city of Talkalakh. The BBC reports seven people were dead and that residents said the government attack was "indiscriminate."

Kelly told NPR's Robert Siegel that residents of Talkalakh said the government was cracking down on peaceful protests and the dead officers resulted from shootouts between forces who refused to shell civilians and those who were forcing them to do so. The government had a different story, saying it was cracking down on an armed rebellion and those who they say snuck in from Lebanon to help rebels.

Kelly said the truth likely lies somewhere in between. Kelly also talked about the politics driving the conflict inside the country. The protests, she said, are spread out across the country, but Syria's second city, Aleppo, hasn't seen any protests and where that city falls in the conflict will likely determine Assad's future:

The weekend also saw protests at Israel's border with Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. To mark the anniversary of Israel's founding, protesters tried to cross the border and Israeli forces opened fire.

Today the United States government condemned Syria's involvement in the protests and said it was an attempt to distract from what's going on inside the country.

"We are also strongly opposed to the Syrian government's involvement in inciting yesterday's protests in the Golan Heights," Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "Such behavior is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government's ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country."

Carney added: "It seems apparent to us that that is an effort to distract attention from the legitimate expressions of protests by the Syrian people and from the harsh crackdown that the Syrian government has perpetrated against its own people."

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NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Lebanon and has made several trips to the border. She joins us now from Beirut. And, Kelly, what are you hearing about Talkalakh today?

KELLY MCEVERS: Now, this is not the first time that the town has been under siege, but it does sound to us like it's the worst attack so far. Hundreds if not thousands of people are trying to get into Lebanon from Talkalakh. As they crossed the border yesterday, a firefight actually broke out and that's when you saw even more casualties. Now, one of these was reportedly a Lebanese soldier.

SIEGEL: A firefight between whom? Who's firing at whom here?


MCEVERS: We don't know exactly which side is true. It's probably true that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But if that's so, it would be a disturbing development. It would mean that, you know, these people who oppose the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad are starting to look more like an armed resistance than a peaceful protest movement.

SIEGEL: And is what you're hearing from the people in Talkalakh, whom you're talking to, is it typical of what's going on throughout Syria? Does it go against the grain or contrary to what the Syrians are saying they're doing?

MCEVERS: The one place you are not seeing protest yet is Syria's second largest city, Aleppo. It's a mixed city that has prospered in recent years during Syria's economic opening. For now, it seems like the middle class of Aleppo is waiting to see which side will gain momentum. Are the protesters going to get their way and force the regime to fall, or is the regime going to hang onto power? What most analysts tell us is that, you know, the way Aleppo goes, so goes Syria.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you about one other thing. Over the weekend, there was a big Palestinian protest from the Syrian side of the border into the Golan Heights, which Israel controls. How does that fit into this whole picture, do you think, of protests throughout Syria?

MCEVERS: The U.S. government today accused the Syrian government of doing so, as a way to turn attention away from its crackdown on its protest movement, and try to stir up trouble with Israel as a way to, you know, divert the attention of the international community that's been pretty critical of the Syrian regime so far.

SIEGEL: Kelly McEvers in Beirut, thank you.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.