NPR’s Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines

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We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels.

Who are the citizens of Little Syria? “Most of the minorities, the Sunnis who still support him, some from the business class, some don’t like what the opposition has to offer,” Amos said.

A man she interviewed from Aleppo seemingly represented some group of Syrians “who don’t like the regime, and don’t like the rebels,” Amos said. The government is still “able to pay salaries, deliver services, kids go to school.” The opposition, at a recent meeting in southern Turkey she covered, recognized that the inability to provide such public services and schooling is one of the weaknesses of their campaign for Syrian hearts and minds.

From her perspective near the front lines and reporting from Syria’s neighbors staggering under the refugee crisis and heightened sectarian tensions, “it is hard to see a clear [U.S.] policy,” Amos said, except throwing money at it. She declined to offer an opinion of whether she thought the U.S. should step up its role in the conflict, either through military support to the rebels or more direct intervention, saying it’s not the role of a reporter to do that.

“I think it [perhaps] was the policy, we don’t want the rebels to win, but to put pressure on Bashar,” Amos suggested. But with Assad’s recent import of foreign fighters and assistance from Hezbollah and Iran, there’s effectively a stalemate, she said.

“Geneva is blown up, now what?” Amos asks. “I don’t know what the fallback position is.”

 (Photo: A 9 year old Syrian refugee in the building she and her family are living in Erbil, Iraq. July 7, 2013. Credit: B. Sokol, UNHCR.)

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