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Syrian Rebels Gain Ground, And Criticism


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

Fighters for the Free Syrian Army are getting their hands on heavier weapons than normal. They used a captured tank to open fire on a government airbase. That happened outside the country's largest city, Aleppo, where despite a clear advantage in numbers and weapons, the government has not been able to take the city back after five days of intense fighting.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following this story from Beirut, Lebanon. He's on the line. And, Anthony, how are the rebels holding on?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, basically through adapting and improvising. They've been able to use the urban environment to their advantage. They've been using roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices, a lot, to take out vehicles. They've been able to get up close to tanks with rocket-propelled grenades and take them out. And where they were initially on the defense against government troops, now they're assaulting government police stations and intelligence posts. And they've managed to capture some tanks, some on their own, some through defections.

And this has led the U.N. observers in Syria to say that both sides now have heavy weapons and they're using them in confined urban areas, which is of great concern.

INSKEEP: So you have a situation that looks more and more like a civil war here. But are the rebels gaining ground politically?

KUHN: Politically, the rebels remain fragmented. Just yesterday, a new group was established claiming to represent the revolution, called the Council for the Syrian the Revolution based in Cairo. And what they said was that the current umbrella organization for the revolution, the Syrian National Council, was essentially a failure and so another group had to be established.

Also, a commanding officer, a defected colonel named Riyadh al-Assad, in Turkey, said that the commanders of the Free Syrian Army were a sensually opportunists, jockeying for position in a post-regime situation. And also, the rebels have not been doing themselves a favors on the public relations front. Yesterday, a video surfaced that purported to show Free Syrian Army troops rounding up members of the Shabiha militia, throwing them against the wall and summarily executing them.

INSKEEP: The Shabiha militia, that the pro-regime militia?

KUHN: Yes, that's correct. And this has led people to say that atrocities are being committed by both sides in the conflict now.

INSKEEP: So, the rebels have some disunity to deal with. But you mentioned, Anthony, defections - that the rebels have gotten weapons and tanks through defections from the regular Syrian forces. What does that suggest about their morale and their situation?

KUHN: Well, the government troops have been fighting the rebels now, for nearly 18 months. They're exhausted, morale is low. Most of them are Sunni conscripts commanded by minority Alawite officers. The officers do not trust these conscripts, they're afraid they're going to defect and often they do. So defections are a real problem and the defectors have carried a lot of weapons and ammunition with them.

INSKEEP: We should remind people, you talked about Alawite officers. Alawites are the minority who are in charge of the country. You're saying that the Sunni Muslim troops are not necessarily seen as reliable. At the top of the government, of course, is Bashar al-Assad who hasn't been seen in a couple of weeks.

KUHN: Yes, but he was quoted in the media, which attracted quite a bit of attention yesterday. Yesterday was Syria's Army Day, the anniversary of the founding of its army. And he was quoted in an army magazine as saying the current battle will decide the outcome of the nation. And he urged his troops to be the shield, wall and fortress of the nation, as he put it. However, he has not appeared in public since the middle of last month when an assassination took out some of his top security officials.

So nobody knows where he is and nobody knows what leadership role he's playing at this point. He did appear on TV for a while, but there was no sound and it was unclear where he was speaking. So there's sort of an information vacuum about what's happening at the top of the system.

INSKEEP: Anthony, things are a much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn monitoring the situation in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.